Relative indigeneity in Northeast India


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WHILE indigeneity has been a topic of much debate in academic and policy circles, and often subjected to criticisms of essentialism,1 this does not detract from the fact that in many corners of the world, people continue, with growing force, to self-identify as indigenous people. As anthropologists, we are aware that ‘particularities on the ground in different regions [a]re at odds with the overarching articulations made in the declaration of what indigenous status is and requires’.2 Often, indigeneity is a space of strategic compromise and negotiation between international convention, state given rights and empirical realities.3

In this paper, I suggest the notion of ‘relative’ indigeneity to empirically situate the politics of indigeneity in India’s Northeast. Northeast India is a region situated in the meeting point of South, East and Southeast Asian boundaries, and constitutes ‘not only the northeastern borderland of South Asia, but [also]… the northwestern borderland of Southeast Asia’.4 Many tribes migrated here from other world areas as late as the 19th century, and harbor trans-border kinship ties even today. Developments in Southeast and East Asia have bearing on one or other parts of this region,5 which means that policy planners in Northeast India have to be sensitive to the happenings in the neighbouring subcontinents.6 I locate the indigenous politics of Northeast India within the national and international discourses on indigeneity; and then, building on my own ethnographic insights, show first, how relative indigeneity becomes the parameter for asserting rights, and second, how transnationality gives a peculiar cast to the nature of indigenous practices in Northeast India.


Indigeneity, as per international discourse, has always been a fraught issue in the Indian context. In the first ILO Convention in 1957, the concept ‘indigenous’ was tied to protection and the eventual integration of tribes into the national mainstream. In 1985, in ILO No. 169, the discourse became associated with rights of dispossessed primordial inhabitants.7 In India, however, waves of migration of different groups at different times make it difficult to pinpoint some groups as indigenous. There is a lot of confusion and debate regarding ‘who came first’ in a country with a ‘history of successive migrations’.8 Thus, international notions of indigeneity, associated as they are with temporal priority in the sense of original inhabitation, constitute a status that is discordant with many of the groups described as tribes in India.9 This is more the case with many of the tribes of Northeast India, who migrated and settled in areas now within the Indian nation at a time much later than some non-tribes.

Nevertheless, in the past few decades, new demands for additional rights and privileges and constitutional revisions have been made by these groups on the grounds of either being marginalized vis-a-vis other, more dominant, local groups, or being outnumbered in their own territories by non-indigenous populations. In such cases, the question is frequently re-framed from one of aboriginal status, that is, who is and who is not indigenous, to a question of relationality, that is, who came and settled in a particular region prior to others. What is always at stake is an assertion of temporal priority or precedence in relative terms.


In indigenous discourses stemming from Northeast India, primordial rights to territory and constitutionally mandated modern rights are asserted with equal force. The tribes of this region, who constitute the bulk of populations described as scheduled tribes in the Indian Constitution, are considered to have more rights to land compared to other marginalized tribes or non-tribal minority groups in the rest of India. While constitutional provisions against tribal land alienation have helped the tribal peoples of Northeast India to retain some power over their land, water and forest resources,10 movements for self-determination, frequently with an aggressive agenda, continue to proliferate in the Northeast region, often drawing on international indigenous discourses. Bengt Karlsson writes about the tribes of North East India, ‘why does being recognized as ‘indigenous peoples’ matter so much to the Indian ‘tribal’ organizations? They are, after all, already recognized as belonging to a special category of peoples, that is, the scheduled tribes, that entitles them to certain rights and privileges. The answer he provides to this is that indigenous peoples’ status has a wide range of internationally approved rights and safeguards attached to it, above all the right to self-determination, which is regarded as empowering in negotiations or conflicts with the state and other powerful interests.’11


An ILO document states, ‘The tribal peoples in India prefer to identify themselves as "Adivasi" which literally means the original inhabitants. However, in the northeastern region of India, the indigenous communities prefer to call themselves indigenous peoples.’12 Here the ILO statement lays more emphasis on nomenclature, while implying that both adivasis and Northeast Indian tribes are the classified indigenes in India. But neither tribe nor adivasi is used in the sense of aboriginal in India. Adivasi is an early 20th century identity construct that arose as a response to the widespread dispossession and exploitation of the communities living in the Fifth Schedule areas designated in the Indian Constitution. Scholars have remarked on the misapplication of indigenous status to the adivasis of India, given the colonial stereotypes of primitivism attached to this status.13

Karlsson argues that while adivasis speak the language of indigeneity in order to avail of an international platform in which to voice the narrative of centuries-old oppression,14 the tribes of Northeast India do so with an intention to voicing their claims to self-determination before an international community.15 In both, however, the question of relative empowerment to move beyond a present sense of weakness is pertinent. In the former, the ‘other’ is the nexus of caste Hindu-moneylender,16 and in the latter, the ‘other’ is the state; or the ‘other’ could be both in each case.


In some world areas the terms tribal and indigenous are interchangeable. In Australia, the aboriginal population before White settlement consisted of more or less dispersed, homogenous bands or tribes, who were massively dispossessed of their land and reduced in numbers by direct or indirect warfare (diseases). A similar state of affairs was seen in North America. In these cases, those populations called tribal are also recognized as aboriginals (First Nations in US). While the role of the state in recognizing these populations (e.g. US Bureau of Indian Affairs) cannot be discounted, the equation between tribal and indigeneity is more or less taken for granted. In South Asia and North Africa, the distinction between settler and non-settler or indigenous is not as clear. In US, being indigenous is accompanied by a certain moral charge since it awakens memories of exploitation and usurpation.

In such ethnographic contexts, indigeneity as a moral claim becomes important in political mobilizations and political protest. In fact, when an anti-immigration discourse helped the far-Right to grab and retain power in America, there were memes making fun of President Donald Trump’s call to drive out all illegal immigrants, with one meme showing a Native American elder asking if President Trump was serious and if yes, when was he going to pack and leave. The Native American claim to indigeneity is being mobilized here.


In India, tribal has a connotation of backward without necessarily accompanied by the pride of being first comers. The tribals in Northeast India are people who have been discriminated against for a long time, though not in an absolute sense. They more or less retained autonomy from the state. For instance, the Ahom rulers, Shan migrants from Southeast Asia, who governed most of the plains areas of Assam from 1228 to 1826, followed a conciliatory policy toward the frontier hill communities; there was mutual dependency but without the hill tribes being under the direct control of the state. If one were to cite James Scott, those populations who escaped state control were staking a distinct political identity, for being stateless, according to Scott, was a deliberate strategy.17

The term tribe has a fraught history in India, its application subject to much debate and controversy. The 19th century view was that tribe represented not only a particular type of society but also a particular stage of evolution,18 however misplaced this view was. The evolutionary association meant that it best fit those communities who lived somewhat isolated existences. Sociologist André Béteille holds that while this definition may work for some world contexts, it does not work at all in India, where many of the communities identified as tribal had lived in close proximity with other groups. According to him, traditionally in India tribes were not only recognised to exist but were given a definite designation: jana as against jati. However, it is not easy to determine the exact connotation of the term jana, and ‘the distinction between jana and jati must have been even less clear in ancient times than the corresponding distinction today between tribe and caste. Each category was heterogeneous and there was always some overlap between the two’.19


But the colonial state introduced the term tribe as a social category to describe communities that were not believed to be part of mainstream society, drawing on terms such as atavika (forest dwellers) or girijan (hill people) – groups who were at the margins of the state. These colonial descriptions located tribes in specific habitats, such as forests or remote hills and mountains,20 although over the last century, many ‘tribals’ have migrated to urban environments. Debates abound regarding the identity of the tribes – whether they are autonomous entities, for example, Verrier Elwin argues that ‘tribals’ were the custodians of unique cultural traditions that were not just distinct but needing protection – or tribes in transition, for example, Béteille argues that tribe and caste must be viewed as a continuum rather than opposition, and the latter was possible in some cases only because tribal societies remained out of civilizational networks, sometimes by choice.21 Virginius Xaxa, however, cautions against placing tribe and caste on a simple continuum, because this denies an identity to the former, making it out to be an evolutionary stage, rather than a society on its own terms. He suggests that tribes should be approached in the same manner as peasant communities – as part societies, or communities in their own right but as having ties to wider society.22


The postcolonial Indian state created the category of scheduled tribe relying on colonial descriptions but chose to use the term ‘scheduled tribes’ (ST) – as simply an enumerated category – instead of indigenous people. The official Indian position has been that neither the scheduled tribes nor any category of people can be designated as indigenous peoples.23 To an extent, this might have served to avert political struggle between rival groups, claiming constitutional benefits on the basis on indigenous origin, but it has not excluded non-‘tribal’ populations from claiming the ‘indigenous slot’.24

The scheduled tribes in India can live within constitutionally declared scheduled areas, listed as such in either the Fifth or Sixth Schedule. In addition, many states which were formerly scheduled areas and later became full-fledged states, such as Nagaland, Mizoram, and Arunachal Pradesh have all but one seat reserved for tribals in the state legislative assemblies, while Meghalaya has 55 out of 60 seats reserved for tribals. However, problems arose from the fact that the definition of scheduled tribe was neither clearly formulated nor systematically applied. Indications of primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large, and backwardness characterize a scheduled tribe, according to official criteria followed in India.25


That this kind of categorization can be problematic and subject to state manipulation has been shown elsewhere. For example, in the context of Indonesia, Tanya Murray Li shows how the construction of the ‘primitive’ as a target of the Indonesian development regime involved compromises at various levels, and officials wanting the programme to succeed avoided those groups which were more ‘primitive’ in the sense of being true nomads, unused to living in houses or wearing clothes.26 Similarly, in India, ‘scheduled tribe’, became, for administrators, a means to skirt the problem of definition, focusing instead on enumeration.27

Townsend Middleton shows how state policies, politics and people shape who ends up being recognized as tribal.28 The context of his research is the demand of Gorkhas to make Darjeeling a Sixth Schedule district, but this means Darjeeling must show that it is a tribal majority district. Middleton’s ethnographic work on government anthropologists recruited to survey and identify rightful or eligible claimants to the scheduled tribe status shows that state methods and processes are often flawed. Claimants to the ST identity put up performances to convince the anthropologists of their ‘backwardness’, proving that ‘political movements that build on "tribal" or adivasi claims tend to further reify the cultural characteristics of these communities: ancestral rituals become staged performances, and photographs of "tribal" dress and material culture are pictured as hallmarks of "tribality" on calendars.’29 The state, in turn, sees and reacts to these demands through the lens of politics – the problem of too many scheduled tribes in Darjeeling would mean that the state would have to give Darjeeling Sixth Schedule status.


Problems also arise from contestations about which community deserves a Sixth Schedule status. As newer groups demand this special provision to be extended to their territory, it leads to what Sanjib Baruah calls a crisis of citizenship, since this clause was originally meant for aboriginals of formerly excluded and partially excluded areas, and now groups who were not so isolated are demanding it too.30 When groups such as Gujjars of Rajasthan claim ST status, they come into conflict with the Meenas, who have been already recognized as ST; here, the conflict arises because the Meenas sense competition from the Gujjars in terms of the material benefits the two communities would have to share, if the latter too is recognized as ST by the state.


Cases from Northeast India show how despite aboriginal inhabitation not being the criteria for demarcating scheduled tribe status in India, this concept has been co-opted by groups of Northeast India, primarily functioning in an anti-settler milieu. This has involved a process of re-invention, as groups recast their identity not only on terms dictated by the politics and legal discourses of the nation state, but also in terms of priority of inhabitation. The term strategic essentialism has been applied to this political process before,31 but I find the notion of relative indigeneity more appropriate in describing the situation in Northeast India.

The concept of relative indigeneity is not simply to stress a provisional, shifting identity. Rather, it highlights a conception of indigeneity that draws on international conventions of indigeneity and is buttressed by legal frameworks of scheduled tribe lists provided by the Indian state. These legal provisions, based on customary rights to land, were begun as a means to provide protection for communities indigenous to the land, and they extend to certain legal rights over land, for land in Northeast India is non-alienable; that is, it may not be transferred to non-tribal populations. Yet, these very provisions may be wielded by natives against settler populations who are also marginalized.

In discussions of North American or Australian indigenous situations, settler has conventionally been associated with a conqueror class. In these contexts, natives are those who have developed a way of life matching the natural environment over ages, while alien settlers are those who have an entirely different way of life and culture which threaten the indigenous and traditional livelihood patterns. However, empirical examples from non-western contexts illuminate the problems of such taken-for-granted political identities.


In a 2001 book, anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani expresses concern at how settlers are disenfranchised vis-a-vis indigenous under the post-colonial state.32 According to him, the category of the indigenous or native is an essentialized colonial construct, as is the category of the non-native. If colonial rule invented these dichotomous political categories, then postcolonial regimes retained them albeit by inverting the statuses. That is, the expropriated category of the indigenous during colonialism became the new rights bearing category protected by postcolonial states, as opposed to whom those considered non-indigenous or settlers are discriminated. As Mamdani writes, ‘in privileging the indigenous over the non-indigenous, we turned the colonial world upside down, but we did not change it’.33

In postcolonial African states, if the law protects indigenous peoples, it conversely penalizes those populations who migrate outward from their homeland to a different state for economic reasons and are subsequently given the settler label in the new milieu. That is, the political recognition of indigenous identity in African states has led to discrimination against those who have been settled in a particular territory for many years, and yet may claim no legal rights vis-a-vis the indigenous peoples. Note that in such usages, the term settler, commonly associated with conquerors, is made interchangeable with immigrant.


In relation to postcolonial Africa, therefore, Mamdani argues that we need to go beyond the colonial categories of native and settler in conceptualizing political identities. He argues that the solution to such situations is to make political identities less dependent on cultural identity as in customary rights, and more dependent on present residence. I am not sure whether that solution can travel to Northeast India. By referencing Mamdani in the African context, I simply wish to make the point that conventional settler-native relations can be seen from a different angle. That is, privileging of aboriginal or customary rights through legal statutes may result in disadvantageous consequences for so-called ‘non- indigenous’ or settler populations in postcolonial states who are not only marginalized but also unprotected by law, and who then are subjected to discrimination by locally placed groups asserting relative indigeneity.

For tribes of Northeast India, as I pointed out earlier, an unqualified or wholesale use of the term indigeneity has further complications.34 Rather, it is dependent on context and scale. Although most of the groups inhabiting Northeast India are late migrants, their movement to this region definitely preceded other movements from the Indian subcontinent. That is, when only the Northeast region is taken as the unit, many of the tribes can claim indigeneity in the sense of prior settlement vis-à-vis the new settlers, but if their arrival is measured in terms of people’s movements within India as a whole, they would be seen as later migrants. In this situation, indigeneity becomes relative to territorial scale. That is, a group can claim prior settlement relative to a specific region or area. Still, inter-state migrations have complicated the situation.


When groups who are prior settlers, as in indigenous, in one particular territory later migrated to areas, they became the new outsiders/newcomers. Thus, the second complication in clearly demarcating a Northeast Indian indigeneity arose from colonial patterns of forced migration which messed up the regional separations between different indigenous groups. During the British colonial period, huge masses of adivasi laborers were transplanted to Northeast India as indentured labour (and even sent overseas to Mauritius, Trinidad, Fiji etc. to work in railway construction or in coal plantations). The colonial government recruited huge numbers of, primarily male, adivasi labour from central India to provide cheap workforce in the expanding tea plantations of Assam in Northeast India in the 19th century. These transplanted adivasis acquired the status of settlers in Northeast India.

Thus, while adivasis living in Fifth Schedule areas of central India might claim legal rights in these territories based on their long-term residence there, in Northeast India, the same adivasi groups are settlers not only in label but also in law. This is because in India, the designation of scheduled tribe is area specific – the same groups having ST status in the part of the country where they have ancestrally resided might not have this status in another part of the country to which they migrated later. Note that this is similar to the situation described by Mamdani (2001) for the postcolonial Nigerian federation, where every state in the Nigerian federation has an ethnic character, so that only those considered indigenous within a state may qualify for the reserved quotas.35 Conversely, all Nigerians residing outside their ancestral state are considered non-indigenous in the state where they reside.

Similarly, the adivasi communities in Northeast India are not only labeled as settlers by the local groups but are also not recognized as scheduled tribes in Northeast India; and they are denied legal benefits available to their counterparts in central India who did not migrate. Their claim to minority rights and scheduled tribe benefits is disputed by local tribal communities who have resided in the region far longer in comparison. This becomes a problem of social justice.


Therefore, a peculiar situation exists in Northeast India where local communities and adivasis find themselves on opposite sides of the fence. In the last decade, conflicts over land and resources between adivasis and local tribal populations have exacerbated, resulting in violence and bloodshed. One glaring example is the conflict between the Bodo tribals and the adivasis in western Assam, a state in Northeast India. From 1996 to 1998, Bodos who claim son of the soil status in Assam clashed with Santhal adivasis, who are descendants of tea workers brought as indentured labourers by the British colonial rulers to work in the expanding tea plantations of Assam in the 19th century. Despite having lived in neighbouring settlements for more than a century now, these Santhals are still considered interlopers by Bodo tribal groups. (Bodo groups in another state are not considered indigenous.)

On 15 September 1996, within a single day, 48 people were killed and over 500 houses were burnt as Bodos and adivasis clashed in a Bodo dominated area; and more than 300 people were killed in this year. In July and August 2012, conflict arose again in this area, but this time between the Bodo tribal communities and Muslim settlers from Bangladesh, with both sides accusing each other of ethnic cleansing. It must be noted that the Muslim groups were also settled in the Bodo dominated areas by the British colonial government, who encouraged cultivators from land-scarce east Bengal (now Bangladesh) to migrate to Northeast India, a region rich in fertile land but poor in cultivators.


It is important to note that while clashes between natives and migrants took place also in the hoary past, the character of colonially induced migration and settlement was unprecedented in scale and violence, because colonialism was reckless in tearing up and joining ancestral territories of different communities, translocating very large numbers of people to territories natives called home, to serve their own commercial and political interest, without consulting the sentiments of local people. Although, initially the local people welcomed the newcomers for they brought better agricultural techniques, they later clashed with each other as the numbers of migrants continued to escalate. The British allowed these conflicts to take a communal term. Hence political strategies of colonial rulers were pivotal to the later development of tensions. Post-colonial states too, as Mamdani shows, for various reasons were concerned to maintain the colonial outlook and mode of governance.

In Northeast India, indigeneity, in its temporal definition, resurfaces each time battle lines are drawn between locals and the immigrants. The massive migrant influx to many areas of the Northeast has forced people who have settled prior to later migrants to take on the mantle of the indigenous people. Claims to the indigenous slot in this context have been voiced not only by those designated as scheduled tribes but also by non-tribal Assamese populations, adding to the confusion in defining the indigenous. In the Assam Movement of 1979-85, the slot of indigeneity was assumed by the Assamese-speaking vis-a-vis the non-Assamese-speaking populations residing in Assam.


In present Arunachal Pradesh, a border state in Northeast India, there are three major migrant groups who were settled in this region by the postcolonial Indian administration as a rehabilitation move, Tibetan, Chakma and Hajong (some sections of these populations have since been granted citizenship). Student groups leading the anti-refugee movement in the 1990s allege that the Indian state resettled these migrant communities who were fleeing ethnic persecution in Arunachal Pradesh without taking into account local opinion; and in the last years, a rising anti-immigrant sentiment among the local youth, in particular, has led several student organizations to demand the repatriation of these migrant groups who have been settled here for almost a half century now.36

Like other groups of Northeast India, the 26 and more scheduled tribes of Arunachal Pradesh have a history of late migration to India (for example, the Khamtis who came as late as the 18th century from the Shan areas of Burma); yet they still may claim prior inhabitation relative to the later settlers and migrants from other parts of India in the 20th century. In all the cases I have described, assertions of indigenous rights have resulted in discrimination against settler populations who are equally if not more disenfranchised in the national scene.


The second feature of indigeneity in Northeast India is that most groups also share and sometimes actively articulate transnational links. The Northeastern part of India is distinct from the rest of the Indian subcontinent, having followed a historical trajectory different from that of mainland India until the British colonizers made this region part of a single Indian administrative unit. Many parts of Northeast India, excluding some of the plains regions that fall within the Hindu/Sanskritic civilizational network, had been ruled by groups or dynasties that migrated from what is currently the South East Asian world area. In fact, a couple of books on Southeast Asian tribes include chapters on some of the tribes of Northeast India.37 The British colonial rulers, while ignoring the similarities between hills and plains communities, not only acknowledged but also promoted the separateness between the hill communities, most of whom are now recognized as schedules tribes, and the plains dwellers, most of whom were Hindus or Muslims.

A few colonial anthropologists of the Anthropological Survey of India, which was formed in 1945, even proposed that a Crown Colony should be established for the hill regions of Northeast India in the wake of decolonization because it was argued that the simple tribals of Northeast India were not politically astute enough to compete with their more shrewd counterparts dwelling in the plains.38 Anthropologist-administrator J.H. Hutton suggested the creation of a separate protectorate for the tribes of Northeast India, who would otherwise, in his view, be mercilessly exploited if left to governance by the more politically advanced caste-Hindus.39 The division between plains and hills tribes was a colonial creation that put a stop to the age-old trade and other modes of interaction between the two population groups.40 Yet, it is true that the Northeastern region, bordering Southeast and East Asian nations, gives the impression of a huge border tract displaying the hybrid characteristics of borderlands everywhere.


The trans-border connections of many of the communities in Northeast were de-activated during colonial rule when administrative divisions broke up former solidarities, and it continued up to the postcolonial period. Bianca Son-Doerschel documents how the British listed the Zo highlanders as different groups such as Chin, Lushai, Kuki, for administrative ease, and now many of these groups prefer these separate identities, such as the Chin in Burma, who prefer Chin over Zo because Chin gives them official recognition as one of the ethnic minorities of Burma like the Shans.41 She finds positive value in having the overarching term Zo for these communities writing, ‘There exists a primordial nuance in the usage of the nomenclature Zo across all the highlanders of the Northern Arakan Yomas from the Chin Hills of Burma, the former Lushai Hills, to the highlands of Manipur and the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Myanmar…this primordial nuance …emphasises shared rituals, languages, practices and customs, that have endured a short, separate past of a hundred and fifty years.’


Zo scholar Pum Khan Pao documents how Zo reunification efforts since 1980s (first such conference held in Mizoram in 1988) points to increasing evidence of transnational solidarities being revived in the post-colonial period.42 Historian Willem van Schendel coined a collective term – Zomia – to refer to the non-contiguous space formed by four settlements dispersed across four world areas, namely, South Asia (Dong in North and Northeast India), Central Asia (Zayu in Tibet), East Asia (Gohaling in Yunnan) and South East Asia (Sakongdan in Myanmar).43 This term has since been adopted and popularized by James Scott who argues how certain communities in Southeast Asia chose to remain outside of civilization in order to avoid state control.44

Declarations of transnational connections exist alongside assertions of indigeneity for many communities. The Ahoms, a Shan community who entered Assam crossing the Myanmar border during the 13th century, established a kingdom comprising most of what comprises present day Assam, converted to Hinduism in the 15th century and ruled till the British conquest of Assam in the early 19th century.45 In contemporary Assam, this group has rediscovered its transnational links, demonstrated in the cultural revival of the old script, custom, rites and names.46 On the other hand, in 1996, the Ahoms became one among six groups to submit a demand to the state for their inclusion in the list of scheduled tribes, citing economic and cultural backwardness. The Ahom claim to indigenous status is motivated in part by their perceptions of marginality in the present, compared to their glorious past.


A different situation, but with similar meanings invested in one’s indigenous identity, unfolds in the Northeastern border state of Arunachal Pradesh, among the Monpas of Tawang and West Kameng. The Monpas are a Tibetan Buddhist group who shared a 300 year history of rule, trade and cultural connections with Tibet, but were later absorbed into the Indian polity in the postcolonial period. They are now counted as one of the scheduled tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. Often, claims to ST status are forcefully articulated, mostly by the younger generations, in order to distinguish themselves from the inauthentic claims of citizenship by Tibetan refugees.47 At the same time, Monpas also consider themselves to be the carriers of an ancient Tibetan Buddhist civilization, and see no anomaly between their civilizational and ST claims. Their claims to the indigenous slot occur relative to the new immigrants and in applying for the share of government benefits reserved for the ST category.

In matters of cultural politics, while asserting their solidarity with the trans-border Tibetan Buddhist communities, they slide into a different position where their transnational connections become paramount. In a comparable case, Sara Shneiderman present the category of ‘border citizen’ as analternative mode of belonging for some Tibetan citizens of China, as well as some citizens of Nepal.48


In all the above cases, the transnational articulations of the two groups cannot be seen as reducing their claims to a national identity.49 When Ahoms or another Shan group the Khamptis assert transnational allegiance with the Tai Shans of Myanmar or Thailand, they should be able to do it without losing their moral charge of indigeneity. Zo groups can claim moral community with Zos of Myanmar. Monpas can claim their trans-Himalayan Tibetan Buddhist connections. Does it mean they have to surrender their moral claims of indigeneity? Clearly, they are not positioning themselves as outside India. Their transnational affiliations cannot be seen to undermine or be tangential to their claims to indigeneity. Indigeneity in Northeast India is a complex phenomenon which has to be treated and understood on its own terms. Neither internationally and nationally valid definitions nor conceptualizing tribes as indigenous peoples can fully summarize the diverse strategies adopted by the people in Northeast India in articulating indigenous claims. The concept of relative indigeneity is not merely to underscore strategic articulations of identity. Rather the attempt is to enable a conception of indigeneity that is dependent on both regional context and scale.


* I first proposed the idea of relative indigeneity as part of a supplemental page on Indigeneity for the website of the journal Cultural Anthropology ( in 2012. The page was supposed to carry an additional interview with Professor Virginius Xaxa on indigeneity, but unfortunately, the project for the supplemental page could not be completed. I am grateful to Alison Kenner, the then managing editor of Cultural Anthropology for her comments on the initial draft. A second part of this article draws on my conference paper titled ‘Unsettling settler/native categories: Indigeneity in comparative perspective’, which I presented at the American Anthropological Association Meeting 2012 at San Francisco, California, in the panel ‘Contact Zones: At the Borders of (In)Visibility, (Post)Colonialism and (In)Exclusion in Settler States)’. A more recent version of this paper was presented at the panel discussion ‘Being North Eastern: History, Culture and Identity’, organised by the North East Society, Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi, 4 February 2019. My thanks to Aditya Pratap Deo for his careful editing of this paper.


1. Adam Kuper, ‘The Return of the Native’, Current Anthropology 44(3), 2003, pp. 389-402.

2. Kim Fortun, Mike Fortun and Steven Rubenstein, ‘Editors’ Introduction to "Emergent Indigeneities",’ Cultural Anthropology 25(2), 2010, pp. 222-234.

3. Richard B. Lee, ‘Twenty-first Century Indigenism’, Anthropological Theory 6(4), 2006, pp. 455-479.

4. Sanjib Baruah, Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2005, p. 215.

5. B.K. Roy Burman, ‘Problems and Prospects of Tribal Development in Northeast India’, Economic and Political Weekly 24(13), 1989, pp. 693-697.

6. Ibid. These developments could be of many kinds. Geopolitical tensions on the India-China border; infrastructure planning with respects to roads, hydropower projects etc. on the other side of the Indian border; protests relating to religion, language, environment etc. in Southeast and East China are all events and processes that impact local communities in Northeast India.

7. Roy Burman, ‘Problems and Prospects’; Virginius Xaxa, ‘Tribe as Indigenous People of India’, Economic and Political Weekly 34(51), 1999, pp. 3589-3595.

8. Kuper, ‘The Return of the Native’, p. 390.

9. Virginius Xaxa, ‘Transformation of Tribes in India: Terms of Discourse’, Economic and Political Weekly 34(24), 1999, pp. 1519-1524; Kaushik Ghosh, ‘Between Global Flows and Local Dams: Indigenousness, Locality and the Transnational Sphere in Jharkhand, India’, Cultural Anthropology 21(4), 2006, pp. 501-534.

10. Xaxa, ‘Tribe as Indigenous People of India’, p. 3595.

11. B.G Karlsson, ‘Anthropology and the "Indigenous Slot": Claims to and Debates about Indigenous Peoples’ Status in India’, Critique of Anthropology 23(4), 2003, pp. 403-423.

12. A Guide to ILO Convention No. 169, ‘Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Rights in Practice’, International Labour Standards Department, 2009.

13. Uday Chandra, ‘Towards Adivasi Studies: New Perspectives on "Tribal" Margins of Modern India’, Studies in History 31(1), 2015, pp. 122-127.

14. Xaxa, ‘Tribe as Indigenous People of India’.

15. Karlsson, ‘Anthropology and the "Indigenous Slot".’

16. Susana B.C. Devalle, Discourses of Ethnicity: Culture and Protest in Jharkhand. Sage, Delhi, 1992.

17. James Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale Agrarian Study Series, New Haven, 2009.

18. André Béteille, ‘The Idea of Indigenous People’, Current Anthropology 39(2), 1998, pp. 187-192.

19. André Béteille, ‘The Concept of Tribe with Special Reference to India’, European Journal of Sociology 27(2), 1986, pp. 297-318, p. 308; See also, Xaxa, ‘Tribe as Indigenous People of India’, p. 3591.

20. Béteille, ‘The Idea of Indigenous People’; Eric De Maaker, ‘Indigeneity as Cultural Practice: Tribe and the State in India’, IIAS Newsletter 53, 2010, pp.16-17.

21. Verrier Elwin, The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin: An Autobiography. Oxford University Press, New York, 1964.

22. Xaxa, ‘Transformation of Tribes in India’, p. 1524.

23. Karlsson, ‘Anthropology and the "Indigenous Slot".’

24. A term used by B.G. Karlsson, ‘Anthropology and the "Indigenous Slot": Claims to and Debates about IndigenousPeoples’ Status in India’, Critique of Anthropology 23(4), 2003, pp. 403-423.

25. (Accessed 12 January 2019).

26. Tanya Murray Li, ‘Compromising Power: Development, Culture and Rule in Indonesia’, Cultural Anthropology 14(3), 1999, pp. 295-322.

27. Béteille, ‘The Idea of Indigenous People’, p. 188; Ghosh, ‘Between Global Flows and Local Dams’, p. 509; Xaxa, ‘Tribe as Indigenous People of India’, p. 3589.

28. Townsend Middleton, ‘Scheduling Tribes: A View from Inside India’s Ethnographic State’, Focaal: Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 65, 2013, pp. 13-22.

29. De Maaker, ‘Indigeneity as Cultural Practice’, p. 16.

30. Baruah, Durable Disorder, p. 185.

31. Lee, ‘Twenty-first Century Indigenism’, p. 471.

32. Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2001, p. 657.

33. Ibid.

34. Xaxa, ‘Tribe as Indigenous People of India’.

35. Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers.

36. Swargajyoti Gohain, Imagined Geographies in the Indo-Tibetan Borderlands. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2020.

37. Peter Kunstadter (ed.), Southeast Asian Tribes, Minorities and Nations, Vol. 1. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1967; Francois Robinne and Mandy Sadan, Social Dynamics in the Highlands of Southeast Asia. Brill, Leiden/Boston, 2007.

38. K. Suresh Singh, ‘A Perspective on the ASI’, Seminar 495, November 2000. (Accessed 1 October 2012).

39. Ibid.

40. Sanjib Baruah, India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1999; Lakshmi Devi, Ahom-Tribal Relations: A Political Study. Guwahati, 1992.

41. Bianca Son-Doerschel, The Making of the Zo: The Chin of Burma and the Lushai and Kuki of India Through Colonial and Local Narratives 1826-1917 and 1947-1988. PhD Thesis, SOAS, University of London, 2013.

42. Pum Khan Pau, ‘Administrative Rivalries on a Frontier: Problem of the Chin-Lushai Hills’, Indian Historical Review 34, 2007, pp.187-209.

43. Willem van Schendel, ‘Geographies of Knowing, Geographies of Ignorance’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 20, 2002, p. 653.

44. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed.

45. Devi, Ahom-Tribal Relations; Yasmin Saikia, Fragmented Memories: Struggling to be Tai-Ahom in India. Duke University Press, Durham, 2004.

46. Saikia, Fragmented Memories.

47. Gohain, Imagined Geographies in the Indo-Tibetan Borderlands.

48. Sara Shneiderman, ‘Himalayan Border Citizens: Sovereignty and Mobility in the Nepal-Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of China Border Zone’, Political Geography 35, 2013, pp. 25-36.

49. Karlsson, ‘Anthropology and the "Indigenous Slot".’