What’s so special about the Tribal Research Institute ?


By Aristotle Lyngdoh

Recently, Health Minister, AL Hek  proposed to the Central Government to set up another Tribal Research Institute (TRI) in the state. Such a proposal may seem right in view of the need to understand tribal lifestyle and cultures and to help them integrate with the diversity around them. However, before making such a proposal, the Minister should have consulted and found out as to what is the actual situation in the state and within the various departments of the government machinery. How will it reflect on the state government if they (central government) come to know that such an institution already exists in the state capital? Should this type of pro-activeness be treated as hyper-activity or foolishness? And for the state government or its functionary to be ignorant and unaware about such a thing is unbelievable and disgraceful. However, for the information of everyone, The Tribal Research Institute which is currently located at its own plot at Mawlai Nongkwar GS Road opposite Gaoshala was set up in 1964 by the then Assam Government, sanctioned during the Prime Ministership of Pandit Jawahalal Nehru. From reliable sources this writer has learnt that retired personnel served under this Institute during its early years. There was quite a dramatic incident that has led to the establishment of this institute in our region.

A well known British-born Indian Anthropologist Dr Verrier Elwin in his conversation with Nehru in 1960 said, “North Eastern region of India is a mini anthropological garden in the world. It’ll take only half to one hour walk from one village to another, where one will encounter different dialects, attires, customary rites, traditions, eating habits, types of settlements, livelihoods and so on which are completely different from one another. Further, it will take several years of in-depth studies by qualified anthropologists to understand the way of life of the tribes there. One of the many factors that may lead to complex problem in the near future is that the tribal customary laws, heritage and traditions are running a parallel line with the Law of the Land. Therefore, there is an urgent need to set up a Research Institute in order to find a point of convergence where the local customs, traditions, practices and the Law of the Land could collude for the benefit of the local settlers.” Elwin further added, “Northeastern Region is a powder keg; one day it’ll blow up and when it does you’ll see bloodshed.”

Nehru was not convinced at that time, and then came the Indo-China war in 1962. Military Intelligence reports conveyed to Nehru at that time said, “There are 17 tribes that inhabit the mountainous slopes of NEFA and all 17 tribes are the off-shoots of the Mongoloid race. It so transpired that these tribes are more at home with the Chinese Army than with the Indian Army. In fact it was the local people who abetted and assisted the Chinese Army to advance up to Bomdila, the HQ of NEFA”. This made Nehru realize the importance of how to understand the ethos of the tribal people and two years later, in 1964, he himself sanctioned two crore rupees to the Government of Assam at that time for setting up the Research Institute on tribal people. The Government of Assam then bought the plot for rupees three lakhs at GS Road Mawlai Nongkwar which is currently housing the Meghalaya Warehouse, Arts & Culture Amphitheatre, TRI, CRPF unit, Mawlai PS and MIMHANS for some time. The place is also known as Nagaland Jail because during 1970-75 some of the arrested Naga militants were being temporarily jailed here at the request of the Nagaland government.

According to Dr Elwin, the TRI should be headed by the Director with a Doctorate in Anthropology. It should have five wings such as Evaluation & Planning, Arts & Culture, Economic & Statistic (Investigation), Philology and Legal Cell and lastly Research & Training to be headed by Deputy Directors. In all the five wings there will be field workers and data collectors and the entire workforce should not be less than 1500 personnel. And among the five wings, I personally consider Philology and legal cell as the most interesting aspect because, till date we as the Khasi tribes are not able to fully codify and protect our own customary laws and practices. And also because there is need to know more about the origin and evolution of various systems of our culture and tradition that we still embrace today. The vision of Dr. Elwin is very much relevant with our situation but that has not happened. The presence of this TRI at Mawlai Nongkwar is nothing short of jewels among swine. Is it because all are blind and can only see black diamonds or is it that we do not care much since it has no monetary benefits for anyone?

The Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs has clearly assigned the function for TRIs which include (i) conducting research and evaluation studies (ii) undertaking capacity building and training of personnel and institutions working in the area of tribal development (iii) collection of baseline data and their dissemination(iv) organizing tribal festivals (v) conducting seminars and workshops (vi) documentation and their customary laws (vii) setting up tribal museums (viii) conducting exchange visit of tribal and (ix) providing planning inputs to the State Government. I can only say that if TRIs are functioning well as per plan over these years, many communal issues and ethnic tension and violence could have been averted. The presence of such Institutes in a country like India is very important as it will also help policy makers to great extent.

The other reason that prompted our Cabinet Minister A L Hek to raise such a proposal to the Centre is perhaps because he perceived that the society is in urgent need of such an Institution. But the total absence and non-performance of the functionaries of this Institute here in Shillong, has kept everyone in the dark about its importance and functions. And if that is the case then the Minister has every right and also the privilege to seek clarification from the concerned department or to take some corrective steps if he is serious about the TRI. About this TRI I can only say that this is the gift given by the then Prime Minister Nehru to the tribal people of North East and for our state in particular. I therefore urge the present Government and the responsible people of the state to do something about this Institute and to expand its scope of operation.

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