India is a free democratic country where slavery has ended way back! Is it so? Has slavery really ended in rural India? People are still a slave to the higher castes or the head of the villages. One such slavery exists in the Nyishi and Miji tribes in Arunachal Pradesh where a whole community of Puroik is owned by the Nyishi and Miji tribes. They exist in pockets of Arunachal Pradesh, India.
Arunachal Pradesh is famous for its idyllic charm which drives tourists in a large number. Apart from the scenic beauty this place also thrives on a tribal feudal system that is keen on slavery. The victims of this system are the Puroiks, who were once called “Sulungs”, a derogative term signifying vassal status.
While Puroiks are spread across six districts in Arunachal Pradesh, a majority of them reside in East Kameng. For hundreds of years, Puroiks have served as ‘slaves’ to the Miji and Nyishi tribes in the district, working on their fields, tending to their cattle, and taking care of household chores.
In the year march 1999, the administration of the Kempang district banned the feudal practice after more than 3000 Puroiks were found working as the bonded laborers of the tribes. Ever since the order has been passed by the administration the members of this tribal community still continue to buy the people from the Puroiks as their labour for the barter of oxen. This is done especially by the Nyishis also known as Nishings and Bangnis, in the interior of Arunachal Pradesh. Even the Nyishis acknowledge the existence of this practice. “If the Sulung people sell their children, then we (Nyishis) will have to buy them. These people then work in our farms and as labourers at construction sites. They work for their own food, etc.
There must be a few Sulungs here,” Khyabing Bagang, the gaonbura (village headman) of the Nyishi village of Jayang Bagang, about a 60-minute drive from Agang Soja’s village, said. He is among those who still refer to the Puroiks as Sulungs.
This barter system is common for girls who are bought during their marriages by the tribal people and exchanged for money and oxen.
The history behind this feudal system:
History indicates that this form of bonded labour has its roots in economic dependence and debt, Robin Hissang, principal of the Government College in East Kameng’s Seppa states. “According to oral narratives, the Puroiks and the Nyishis had a certain economic relationship. The Nyishis were well to do. The Puroiks had taken loans from them, but couldn’t pay back the debt,” Hissang said.
A report by the Ministerial Committee on Resettlement of Puroik Families describes the genesis of the skewed equation between the Nyishis and the Puroiks and states the Nishings [Nyishis] somehow entered their area and made friends with them and brought them into close contact by persuasion and by offering salt, beads, clothing, daos [swords], local beer, etc. Gradually they made Puroiks work on their agricultural fields and slowly exploited them.
In 1996, following a Supreme Court order, the Centre directed all states to undertake a survey of bonded labourers and ensure the implementation of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976. The survey conducted in East Kameng at the time had found that at least 80 percent of the over 3,000 Puroiks in the district were under servitude of either the Nyishi or Miji tribes. It was only in March 1999 that the East Kameng district administration banned the feudal practice. Subsequently, in a note from 1999, titled ‘Information on Bonded Labour’, the district administration recorded that following the ban, 2,992 of the 3,452 bonded labourers in the district had been released.
Who are Nyishi and Miji:
The Nyishi community is the largest ethnic group in Arunachal Pradesh in north-eastern India. In Nyishi, their traditional language, Nyi refers to “a human” and the word shi denotes “a being”, which combined refers to a human being. They are spread across eight districts of Arunachal Pradesh: Kra Daadi, Kurung Kumey, East Kameng, West Kameng, Papum Pare, parts of Lower Subansiri, Kamle, and Pakke Kessang district. Polygyny is prevalent among the Nyishi. It signifies one’s social status and economic stability and also proves handy during hard times like clan wars or social huntings and various other social activities.
This practice, however, is diminishing especially with the modernization and also with the spread of Christianity. They trace their descent patrilineally and are divided into several clans. The Nyishi are agriculturalists who practice jhum, which is a form of shifting cultivation. Nyokum is the festival celebrated by the Nyishi people, which commemorates their ancestors. The Nyishis, who traditionally wear cane helmets surmounted by the crest of a hornbill beak have considerably affected the population of this bird.
The Miji, also known by the names of Sajolang and Damai, inhabit the districts of West Kameng, East Kameng and a minuscule region of Kurung Kumey in Arunachal Pradesh, India. The traditional costume of Miji women consists of an ankle-length white garment with a beautifully decorated red jacket.