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What threatens indigenous Nocte tribes in Dehing Patkai and their history of assimilation

The Dehing Patkai rainforest has recently been in news and all over social media due to the decision of the government to open up a proposed reserve forest, Saleki, to Coal India Limited for mining coal. The region has always been infamous for the mafia raj and syndicates associated with coal mining. Environmentalists have been regularly raising voices against the illegal coal mining that goes on unchecked, allegedly with the support from the local authorities. Thus, when the decision to allow the public sector company to conduct operations in Saleki was floated, it gave rise to a major outrage. A social media campaign started by local nature lovers and students blew up and turned into a major movement across the country that forced the government to shut down operations of Coal India in the region, upgrade the wildlife sanctuary to a national park and initiate an enquiry under retired judge B P Katakey.

But although much discussions have been made about the impact of the coal mining and associated depletion of the forest cover on the flora and fauna, not much has been spoken about the human angle of the issue. The region has been home to many indigenous communities who have resided there for centuries now. These communities have a close relation with the forest and the river.

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In two previous articles we have discussed about the Tai Phakes

Also read: The Tai Phake: Dehing Patkai and roots of indigeneity

and the Singphos.

Also read: Dehing Patkai and roots of indigeneity: The Singphos

In this, we talk about a tribe that assimilated with the Assamese culture while maintaining their own at the same time. It is this assimilation in the Dehing Patkai that will be the focus of the article.

The Nocte

The origin of the Noctes can be traced to the Hukawng valley in Myanmar. From there they migrated to regions presently in Arunachal Pradesh and the Tirap frontier and later to the banks of Dehing. They are originally said to be followers of Theravada Buddhism, Animism and nature worship but have adopted Hinduism since the 18th century under the influence of Shankardeva. The word Nocte can be broken down into Noc- village and Te- the people. Noctes appear in the British or Ahom literature but are referred to as ‘Nagas of the eastern region’, ‘Namsangia’, ‘Barduria’ or ‘Kolagongia Nagas’. The Noctes were in frequent clashes with the Ahoms. These clashes were mainly centered around the control of salt wells and were seen in the form of frequent raids by the tribesman. Later they came into settlement in the form of regular taxes from the Noctes towards the Ahoms in exchange for ownership over some of the disputed salt wells. The Ahoms also made land grants as khats or farms to the Nocte tribesman called Nagakhats. Some accounts also mention the origin of the Ahom title Borpatra Gohain from a Nocte Tribe leader called Konseng Borpatra Gohain.

The Chief

We drove to the village in the banks of the Dehing river close to the first Ahom capital of Tipam. As we were trying to find our way, a little girl led us to a traditional chang ghor or elevated house. This was the house of the chief of the village or the Morung by the name of Wangling Lowang. We asked him about the settlement of the village and if he could tell us something about the history. “This is the Nocte Village,” the Chief said. “You might have heard the reference of the village as the Dehing Kinaror Naga Gaon (Naga village by the Dehing River). But we are not really Nagas. We are Noctes from Tirap. Our ancestors had settled here. We came here in the 1800s and mine is the third generation. I don’t remember the times of the (1950) earthquake.”

The village houses thirty eight Nocte families and the prime occupation of the villagers is agriculture. On being asked about the assimilation of the people with the Assamese culture, Chief Lowang said with a smile, “We came to Assam from Arunachal. We exercise our voting rights in Assam. We have taken xoron (act of initiation into the Vaishnavite religion) with the Barghariya Satra in Sasoni. Our Gosain lives there. We have assimilated with the Assamese community as one. We feel like we are the same.”

It is said that a bigger community or language seems to eat up the cultures, traditions or languages of smaller communities. Was this the case with the Noctes as well? We posed this question to the Chief right after we heard him speak to his father about us in the Nocte dialect. “We have been maintaining our traditions as well even though we have mixed up with the Assamese lifestyle,” Lowang said. “This Chang Ghor is an example of Nocte architecture. We celebrate the Durga Puja and the Kali Puja as well. But for us, our main festival is our yearly festival in our village thaan (Vaishnav Monastery). In the month of Aahin we will celebrate it in the fields and pray for a good harvest. We also speak our language among ourselves and we have managed to keep it alive all through these years.”

Impact of opencast coal mining

“We are all agricultural families in the village. We grow our own food and also sell the produce from the fields to live by.” Chief Lowang tells us. The fields of the Nocte village are irrigated by the many nullahs (canals) that flow down from the hills and drain into the Dehing river. These same nullahs are also used for fishing. Over the years these canals have been polluted by the products and by-products from the mining in the hills. The sulphur-rich coal residue in the deposits and overburden washed down in the water has turned it acidic. This causes the soil to lose its fertility and at the same time makes the water unfit for the fishes to survive. In fact, such is the amount of coal carried by these nullahs that people have turned coal collection from these streams as a major occupation.

Sustained operations of opencast coal mining in the Dehing Patkai region can pose a threat to agricultural villages like that of the Nocte village. This might result in the people seeking employment in places away from the village. The resulting migration and displacement of people might cause a diminished use of their language and practice of their traditions which will gradually cause them to disappear. As the Chief’s father told us, “The fact that we all are close together makes it possible to keep our tongue and traditions alive. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible for thirty eight families to keep our ancestral traditions alive while assimilating with a bigger culture than our own.”

The way forward

While the many forms of coal mining are dangerous in themselves, the open cast coal mining practiced in and around the region of the Dehing Patkai rainforest is the most dangerous of them all. The process involves large scale deforestation of the entire over lying earth. Each mine can produce tons of waste per day and these wastes are later run off into the water bodies. This causes all arable land downstream to be polluted and gradually lose fertility. It has also made the water unsuitable for aquatic life. This definitely puts small agricultural communities like the Noctes at threat as mentioned above.

No one can possibly debate the importance of resources in today’s world. But what needs to be the concern is the development of a sustainable means to extract the resources to make sure that the development of the society is being undertaken at the cost of the ecosystem and biosphere including human communities and cultures. In fact India’s Hydrocarbon policy needs to shift towards greener fuels and needs to move away from coal if it is not yet technologically ready to ensure a sustainable extraction policy. Until then, a resource that evolved over millions of years can always be reserved for future use.

Written by AxomSon

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