Are modern development projects a good input to traditional conflict resolution system of indigenous people?

by Bitopi Dutta  3rd year PhD Scholar at IICRR


This piece relates to a paper of mine which has been recently published in the edited volume “Legal Pluralism and Indian Democracy”. In the paper I have essentially argued how modernisation and development have threatened customary laws of conflict resolution in the North East India and how this whole trajectory can be traced back to the colonial history that always denounced customs as derogatory as opposed to the colonisers’ superior rational laws.

Few years back while being in the state of Nagaland and Manipur for a research project on traditional conflict resolution systems in the North East India, I was appalled to see how a number of development projects were mushrooming in the state, unquestioned by the people on whose land it was beginning to craft out its huge empire; unquestioned to the extent that these projects were executed at the cost of the spirit of customary laws and tradition and they continue to be unquestioned because modern infrastructure development is seen as sacred. Irony is, as much as demand for development has been a primary force behind the innumerable movements of autonomy and secessionism in the North East, so has been the question of tribal indigenous identity consistently trying to preserve itself from the marginalisation of mainland India.

Here, the question is not what comes first- identity or development? The question is not even if both can co-exist. The worry rather is that these questions are hardly raised. The worry is that such violent development projects are largely passing by without instigating any conflicts or questioning. Many might welcome this absence of conflict; indeed who would not! Especially when one has grown up in a terrain embedded in a prolonged history of armed and ethnic conflict, it is always nice to experience an initiative which has pacified conflicts from arising. For a moment it looks like, the age old bitterness is resolved and this development will bring one everything that one has ever aspired for! But the question remains – will it really?

Here, even at the risk of sounding audacious, a further question must be asked – “Are conflict always bad?” The trajectory of conflict resolution in the North East India has seen rebelling ethnic communities serially negotiating from the declaration of a ceasefire to formal peace talks. This is what invented that political dialogue where customary rights stood in self defense against the state hegemony. Are not development projects depoliticizing that political discourse in the region which took such a monumental time in inventing itself? Is not then, such unquestioned acceptance of development projects and absence of retaliation to this violent repercussions on indigenous tradition, also means a stop to growth of conflict resolution mechanisms which have been central in the political discourse of the region? Can it be ruled out that in order to interact and develop some sort of thought out ownership of the development discourses mushrooming in the region, certain healthy conflicts followed by dispute resolution measures are of crucial importance? Dispute resolution measures are important not only because this thought out ownership has to safeguard customary laws that are under threat posed by the development projects; nor is it only limited to protecting the ecology or ensuring local control over development projects. Perhaps the biggest issue that it has to address is the question of the capitalist interests that the indigenous communities will have to encounter and balance internally. Such awareness will go a long way in using customary laws to regulate and seeking alternatives to private property and the market.

Previous Post
Book on legal pluralism and Indian democracy by IICRR PhD student
Next Post
The Mysterious Cause of the Latest (and Potential) Unrest in Kashmir