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The Tai Phake: Dehing Patkai and roots of indigeneity

The Dehing Patkai rainforest is the last of the lowland rainforests in India. This forest is located at the frontier of the country along the international border with Myanmar. It has come under public scanner recently due to the Govt. of India’s decision to grant mining permissions to Coal India Limited in a part of the forest. The decision sparked major uproar among the citizens and a movement came into force to prevent it from being executed. It started from local students and nature enthusiasts and later blew up over the social media. The movement gained popular attention and soon the lawmakers had to take action. Recently the Chief Minister of Assam announced that Dehing Patkai will be upgraded to the status of a national park from its present status of a wildlife sanctuary. This decision will indeed heighten the security provisions in the forest. But the Chief Minister and his party are known to make many token promises to get out of tight spots so whether this decision really sees action remains to be determined.

A lot of attention has been paid to the concerns of all non-human species in and around the forest that are vulnerable to the effects of coal mining. Since the forest is home to a huge number of endangered species of mammals, birds, butterflies and trees, the destruction that comes with open cast coal mining is bound to pose a severe threat to their existence. There is though, another factor to this situation as well. The Dehing Patkai serves as a historical memento for Assam. The river, the mountain and the forest around them have been the home of many indigenous tribes who have lived here for hundreds of years. These tribes and the Dehingporiya (of the banks of the Dehing) civilization that they are a part of have culture, tradition and economy that is interlinked with the forest and the river. Any change in the conditions of either has a direct influence on the conditions of these tribes who are some of the earliest settlers of the region.

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The Tai Phake

The Tai Phake people or the Phakials can be originally traced to the Hukawng Valley in present day Myanmar. It is said that while coming into Assam, Syukapha camped in Hukawng Valley with the Tai Phakes. He embraced them to be his own and later after he established the Ahom capital, the Phakials were invited to be a part of this kingdom. They settled in villages along the banks of the Dehing river and are still based in the same old villages. The present population of the community is around 3000 people which makes it one of the smallest communities of Assam having their own language and traditions.

Most of the Phakials were ready to leave Assam around the time of the Burmese invasion and subsequent Anglo Burmese war. The mass migration was triggered due to the lack of safety and prevalent anarchy in the kingdom at those times. The British officers later took cognizance of the situation and they were granted a mouza (a revenue district) along the banks of the Dehing and settled their officially.

The Monk

We went to the Namphake village which is right on the boundaries of the Joypur forest, a part of the larger Dehing Patkai rain forest. This village is one of the biggest settlements of the Tai Phake people and also is home to one of their oldest monasteries. We met Bhante Gyanapal Bhikhyu, the head priest of the monastery to learn more about how the very small community survived for so many years, managing to keep their language and identity secure and how their historical dependence on the forest and the river has developed.

“We have been able to keep our language and culture alive primarily because we have been able to stay close and together,” he lets us know. “Any displacement within the community might pose a threat to our existence as a tribe. Almost all the tribes in the Dehingporiya civilization –Phakials, Khamtis, Singphos- still have a titular king and his commands regarding community matters are respected and followed by the people. That way certain traditions are very much intact.” The priest also opined that a big factor for the survival of the tribe over all these years even with their tiny numbers is the nature of the Phakials. This was reiterated by another village elder from the nearby Tipam Phake village which is near the first Ahom capital of Tipam. “The Phakials are very harmonious and assimilative without any high ambitions of land and money. We have never been aggressionary towards land and this is a prime reason of us still surviving as a tribe.”

Dependence on Dehing Patkai

On being asked about the dependence of the tribe on the Dehing Patkai forest, Bhante Gyanapal gave us some interesting insights. “Our civilization itself is based on the Dehing river. Since ages, from as far as Namchik, the Phakials are residing along the banks of the river. Patkai mountain is a vessel of pride for the Ahoms because that is our history, that is where we came into Assam. Why so much atrocities have been allowed to be perpetrated against it is a reason unknown. If the Patkai hill is broken down, where will the Ahom existence be? The way things are, someday we will have to point to a flat plain and say that there used to be a hill called Patkai.”

We wished to know what his observations were about the resource exploitation in the area. Upon being asked about the same, the monk let us know of some interesting facts. “Both the open cast coal mining and the oil exploration are doing a lot of harm to the river. Once upon a time, the  water used to be so clean, you don’t even need to filter it before drinking. But since around the late 70s, it became too polluted for use. Even the fish population has reduced. Not only Dehing, even the Disang river is facing the same condition.”

On illegal coal mining operations

The situation in the Dehing Patkai centered around the illegal coal mining operations have bothered the concerned people residing in the area for a long time now.  Upon being asked about his thoughts regarding the same, Bhante Gyanapal said, “In the Margherita region, trucks after trucks have carried coal into the mainland, more so during the lockdown which has only aided their cause. I believe almost all the trucks that carried essentials like potatoes or onions into Assam have travelled upto Ledo and returned laden with coal; no protests or reproach from the people due to lockdown.”

In fact, this illegal mining has been active for a long period now and it is like an open secret for everyone residing in the area. Explaining to us how the entire process works, the Bhante said, “First the mafia will encourage the locals to clear the forest and take up Jhum farming. Jhum cultivation lasts for only one cycle in an area. After this, they will encourage the people to lease out the land for tea plantation. After that, the land will systematically be handed over for open cast coal mining. Because to the public eye they are digging out a tea garden. That the garden once used to be a forest is seldom remembered. The fact is, neither the garden, nor the coal mine is actually in a private land.”

Previous action

You would think that such activities that pose a threat to both humans and non-human species alike would definitely warrant action from the local administration. But no. Upon being asked about this and the efforts to be taken to save the forest from further damage, the priest said, “Previously Pradyut Bordoloi was the minister and now it’s Bhaskar Sarma, both are playing the same game. The fact is, if you have to save the forest, both the tea as well as coal encroachment needs to be stopped. At the same time, the locals need to be rehabilitated with better options of livelihood. The coal mining has only resulted in increased cases of diseases like TB and asthma. Moreover there is also the issue of drug addiction. The mafia gets people intoxicated and later addicted to drugs so as to keep them from revolting against them. They carefully identify the people who can be potential trouble makers for them and either get them addicted or killed.”

The monk cites the example of the 2007 case of the then president of the Tirap Autonomous District Council Demand Committee (TADCDC), Prasanna Turung. “Turung was a fearless man. He started raising voices and building opinion against the mining activities saying that it was causing the locals more harm than gain. He used to say that over the years the local people have stayed underdeveloped without any access to the benefits of this resource exploitation. When his enemies got concerned, he disappeared overnight. Not only he, even his wife disappeared along with him. The case was later handed over to the CBI but even they dropped it citing lack of evidence.”

The way forward

At one point the monk tells us, “Human oppression (on nature) has gone beyond limits. In fact I sometimes think this Corona is not from China but from God.” He smiles at his own joke. But his words certainly hold essence. For mankind in this part of the world have gone beyond their way to make sure that they get the maximum off nature. Even if it brings the small communities, like the Tai Phakes, to existential threat due to possible displacement as well as alteration of traditional ways of sustenance. We must remember that this is a community of 2500-3000 population which is about ten percent of the capacity of the Sarusajai stadium. This means special care needs to be taken to protect and preserve the Phakials and going after their home, the river and the hills that they consider a part of their very existence and the forest that spans them, is definitely not a preferable step in this regard.

Written by Axomson

The article will come in a series. This being the first of the forthcoming pieces.

Opinions expressed are that of the author

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