Interview with Sukhendu Debbarma, Professor of History, Tripura University, Tripura
Duration: 00:27:49; Aspect Ratio: 1.778:1; Hue: 102.032; Saturation: 0.031; Lightness: 0.569; Volume: 0.198; Cuts per Minute: 0.036; Words per Minute: 100.489
The Identity project emerged as a result of our dissatisfaction at the nature of the debate that was emerging on the area of digital governance in India.
Over the past three years we have conducted numerous field visits in seven Indian states.These visits include numerous video-conversations, some short and others very long, with a diverse number of those who were involved with this entire process of participating in the emergence of a digital ecosystem of governance. These are interviews with people being enrolled into the Aadhaar programme, with district-level Panchayat and other officials, with numerous State government bureaucrats, with private enrollment representatives, representatives of various governmental services, with operators and other members of this digital workforce. Conversations are often long, spontaneous and deliberately unstructured: and the focus is mainly on a vérité style using amateur video.
Some key issues that we shortlisted for detailed inquiry were issues of migrants, both domestic and across international borders, homelessness in cities, and the financially excluded. Each of these areas was discussed in considerable detail at major public consultations held in Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Bangalore, in partnership with the CSDS, the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, and the Urban Research and Policy Programme Initiative of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. All videos of all presentations made at these events are also available here.
CSCS also has an extensive text archives of material on the field as a whole, available on http://eprints.cscsarchives.org
Interview with Prof Sukhendu Debbarma, History Department, Tripura University, who is sceptical about the success of the Aadhaar project considering that it does not state clearly what benefits it is going to provide to poor tribal people of his state. Strongly presenting the legacy of the people of the state - where cultivation practices and occupation that have existed for centuries are now suddenly being declared illegal, he asks what the Tripura state's much-vaunted e-governance policy will actually do to actual people. His comments about identification practices in Tripura, relegate Aadhaar to the historical category of “documents”, something also echoed in other interviews in the state.
Interviewer: I have a few areas which I thought I could discuss with you. One is the history of identification practises that have been from the government on the state of Tripura, and how does that change the self-perception of the local community or the local tribal community? Have there been any changes in that?
Debbarma: If we have to talk about that, then first of all, how we identify ourselves is very important. The self-identification part of that. The other day there was a seminar; I had a paper on rice and the socio-cultural importance of rice.
We call ourselves as Borok. Earlier the government used to say Tripuri, Tripera etc. Basically we are the Borok people. If you look at the food that we eat, we call it 'cha borok' cha means food - the food that the borok people eat. What we wear - 'kaan borok' kaan means wear, language - 'sekuan borok' the language spoken by the borok. But borok is a larger term to say people, but then it also very restrictive.
Suppose, you come to my house. Because you don't look like me, you will be called Buri, meaning an outsider. But if a person like me comes, they'd say a Borok came. You see how the boundary line is drawn. That is one self-identification of ourselves. We call ourselves Borok. That has been the identifying force from time immemorial.
Now as far as I remember, first of all what has come is your citizenship, and being the border state it is very sensitive, and then the ration card (came), then as per the notification of the government of India on the scheduled list, we have been put as scheduled tribes; so that is again another identification certificate as I belong to this Borok people. And there they have put us as Tripuri community, that is one.
Then you have what is called now the PRTC- Permanent Resident Certificate of Tripura - is one which is being given. Because I think citizenship has been stopped. The citizen certificate has been stopped so there’s a permanent resident certificate which is being used by the government.
The first recognised national card that I had was the MNIC. I think I still have it. For this unique ID I did not... everything was ready but I didn't have time.
So this is the card. Have you seen one?
Interviewer: No I haven't. It has a smart...
Debbarma: It's a smart chip.
Interviewer: Did you use it subsequently anywhere?
Debbarma: Subsequently using it means when I forget my ID and other things at the airport, this is what I use.
Interviewer: And this is accepted?
Debbarma: Yes, it is. I think so far that is the only identification that I have been given by the government.
Interviewer: And now it is Aadhaar that's coming. If you look at MNIC and Aadhaar, they also seem to be inclusive mechanisms into the mainstream because they're being homogenised across the country. So does that sense of inclusion also... Do you find that perception in the community as well, of being included? Or some change in the status?
Debbarma: I talked to a few people - what is their perception about this. I just wanted to know about what is their perception. As far as Tripura is concerned, identifying as you said the mainstream - I wouldn't call it mainstream, then what stream am I? - It's not that 'we and the rest of India'- it is not like that.
We feel part of it. Now when somebody says mainland, I say what land are we then? Mainland means it includes all. The whole land of India. There's nothing small or big.
Somebody has gone ahead and we are just following - it's not like that. We have our own unique cultural identity, and that is very sad. Especially when we go out, of course Bangalore is nice place, nobody questions. But sometimes in Mumbai, Delhi and other places people think that we are not from India.
So the sense of alienation comes. It has nothing to do with documents. It has something to do with the entire curriculum that has to be put in schools or other levels of education.
Now any average school student, if asked where Mumbai is, they'll know. It is not because of film and other things. In the whole curriculum itself, you have some kind of familiarisation of those places. But if I say Tripura, they would say how do you go to Tripura?
80-90% of Indian population which lives outside of the North-east will ask me that. Do you need a passport? (They ask) Then this sense of alienation comes in. So whatever identity you have doesn't matter. The more important thing is how the North-east in a real sense, I’m talking about the entire North east because this is one feeling we always have- when the rest of the Indian population will really understand?
Showcases are always being done... I don't know how it fails... on Republic day, Independence Day you have different types of tableaus. Maybe people ignore it. Otherwise there are few occasions where interaction is also taking place. Very little interaction happens.
Interviewer: Given the history of insurgency, if I might say, was there any resistance to being enrolled or put into a database that included people from all over the place.
Debbarma: I don't think that has anything to do with insurgency. At least I, for myself, don't believe in that. Because if you know the history of Tripura, then you see as per record, around 198 rulers have ruled the state. It is one of the oldest kingdoms.
When British-administered India was fighting for Independence, we were already independent. Tripura became part of the Indian union on 15th October 1949. So you can just imagine.
It has a very close relation with the British administration. In that sense, once it became part of the Indian union on 15th October 1949, two changes which were very significant happened.
One was administrative changes which took place from monarchy to democracy; the other is the inflow of the refugees from Bangladesh, which was Pakistan at that time.
So the indigenous population had become a minority and minority meaning, their percentage had become so low. As per the latest census, the local population is only 31%. I'm not exaggerating; you can look at documents, like one PhD which was published, Gayathri Bhattacharji's book...
Interviewer: In fact I wanted to ask you, I couldn't find it anywhere, and I think you had referred to it.
Debbarma: Yes. You can look there the role of the overall population. Once you go to Guwahati you can buy it there. I used to have a copy.
There again the identity, you whole process of your being is questionable. If ecologically that was damaging, then how have people survived through generations?
And with that you have developmental issues. That is the mechanism on where the indigenous population felt that the identity is in threat, so in 1985 you have the sixth schedule. Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous
District Council. It's not only the population being less but also the threat of preservation of identity and culture. That is the reason District Council has been set up by the government of India and the Tripura Government. So it goes hand in hand. If you ask me why the District Council has been set up, my answer will be, we've become minority in our own land. Otherwise what is the need? There is no need.
That's the sad part of it. Nowhere in the North-east will you find that the indigenous population had become a minority in their own land. So if you're talking about insurgency, then basically we are talking about that only.ii
Interviewer: Land as an asset would also be depleting.
Debbarma: You have raised a very vital question. As far as land is concerned, earlier the land belonged to the Maharaja - the entire land - and then later on reserve forests were created. Most of our people lived in the forest because they do shifting cultivation. Now when this TLR act - Tripura Land Reform act of 1968 was brought up, and with the Forest Preservation Act, those people who lived in the forest became illegal. The larger chunk of our people who had been living there for generations have lost the entitlement of the area which they have lived in for generations.
One very interesting study I conducted on shifting cultivation was done by Kanida and I did it for Tripura. Let me share that experience.
I went to a far flung village. Usually if you go at noon time to the rest house, some older people will be splitting bamboo. The rest go out to work. We reach that place because when you go up they have a rest house before entering the village. I went with some of my scholars and the first thing we were asked is whether we were from the forest department. I was curious, why forest department of all people?
I told them we were here to study shifting cultivation and he gave us a very good input. Then I asked why forest department? Now and then they come tell us that we live here illegally. He was showing us the trees and other things and said we've lived here for generations. I explained to him who I was and he wanted to know, since I was educated, 'tell me whether the law came first or we came first'?
I was wonderstruck with that question and that inspired me to work. I said, naturally you came first and the law came later. 'Then how are we illegal'? I said this is the question I am still asking.
Then the plain land, because my grandfather used to tell me when I was very small, that where they cultivate the shifting cultivation, one crop in the year is sufficient for three years. And shifting means what? It isn't what general agriculturists would think of multi cropping. I have seen with my own eyes. Around 40 crops are grown in one plot and they're harvested systematically.
The last being cotton and sesame. So the entire needs of a household are fulfilled there. It not only is cultivation, it is a lifestyle. The way we cultivate our time and space goes with it. The festivals, the religious articles... It is such a vibrant... One would say it is just a cultivation but no it is the entire life.
Our folk tale...everything is related to our cultivation. How would you feel when the forest department says you can't cultivate?
Because the outgrowth... again bamboo, once you leave it fallow after the shifting cultivation, there's a good growth of bamboo. That bamboo to us means life.
When my navel was separated from my mother (umbilical cord), it was a green slice of bamboo which was used.
I have written quite a few papers on this bamboo. I am attempting to write on rice now. Bamboo, shifting cultivation... you can't really separate all these from identity when you talk about identity.
Interviewer: Are these published papers?
Interviewer: If I move to the present-day scenario... one aspect of Tripura which stands out outside when you look at the state and its policies etcetera is its almost fetishisation of technology by the state government. The e-government projects, the several initiatives that they've taken. I wanted to understand that here, and in my conversation with the state government, I understood that their imagination of digital governance is massive.
But when I speak to residents or people outside the government, there seems to be a huge gap between what they propose to deliver and what is being reached on the ground. I wanted your comments on first where does the state see itself, and how does it imagine these things in the first place and for what purpose? Because it clearly doesn't seem like the purpose is for the real problem of development or poverty, or lack of work options, but here is some other self image that is being portrayed by the state which I think requires questioning.
Debbarma: I am also learning for the first time. I really don't know what's going on in the government. Since we're not part of the government, we're outside. Now only I learned that there's this massive thing that's going to happen. My whole point is how is it going to help in the development process?
And how will a villager on the border of Bangladesh, Tripura and Mizoram, how are they going to be impacted by this? And look at the power scenario here. We have almost (continuous) load shedding.
Now that would require a huge infrastructural support in terms of training of manpower and others. I don’t know. I cannot imagine.
If they can do it, then well and well. But how are people going to benefit? That's all. In any ambitious project, I think it is the people who should be the one (on whom) the impact of such things be felt, even to the last -who live in very remote areas. Food has to be dropped by helicopter. How are they going to be impacted by this? And a card like this, Aadhaar or unique ID, what impact will it have when food scarcity is there?
Sometimes it's reported, sometimes not. The fact is that people don't have food, sufficient for a year. Most of them do shifting cultivation and what is there in the low-lying areas, there's some cultivation but it is not enough.
Interviewer: From a political stand point, how would this sort of transformation in imagination - I believe the politics would have once been of welfare and development of very tangible problems. But then it gets shifted into this digital atmosphere where they feel that every solution can be found in a technologised environment. It's clearly not happening. In terms of event - chronology - when do you think that change happened? Was there a change in some sort of leadership at the top or... is there a deeper history to what we're just seeing now or is it something which is...
Debbarma: I think this is not peculiar to Tripura, no? It has to do with the nation state - India as a whole. You see how they're trying to project 'India shining'... All those kinds of impacts are there. Those impacts will naturally come and each of these states is trying to smart out oneself because in order to do all this you need funds.
Now if you cannot outsmart the others, you will not get funds. So basically what you try to do when you do project and other things, what do you do? You want to prove yourself, that this can be done. You have to defend.
Now defending and getting things done and result going to the last person, there's a huge gap.
Everybody wants to be on board. Now what do I do? I have to work something out which others have not done.
Interviewer: I was thinking of the example of Andhra Pradesh, where the governance is entirely on a digital front. But there, you see there are attempts to get it down to the last village. There are development aspects, development projects which are being...on which technology solutions are being implemented.
But in Tripura, I’m getting the sense that there is huge alienation between the real problems which are on the ground and the state's imagination of itself. I’m not sure if it has got to do with the political scenario but it's possible a combination of these things.
Debbarma: It is how, as I said... If we're talking about the political will which has to be formulated; now how is it going to percolate? If we're talking about e-governance, it goes to somewhere, how is it going to help?
In monsoon you still see people suffering from waterborne diseases. You can look at old (news)papers and see how people are still dying.
If your e-governance can give clean drinking water, I have no problem. If you can ensure food during the lean period, I have no problem.
Because you have to put your feet on realistic... You can't just imagine. I can imagine a very superb structure of e-governance but how is it going to help?
Last time when I visited a very remote area that is beyond Kanchanpur almost.... there's no road. They were carrying the patients like our old system of carrying on a cloth...
Interviewer: It's all ironical because Tripura has been put on to the national stage as the state which has got almost 90% of UID Aadhaar enrolments and how this particular database is going to help in real problem is the question that is...
Debbarma: That's what I am saying, how is it going to help?
Female speaker: We're also questioning that.
Debbarma: How is it going to help? What is important about this?
Interviewer: So is that a question being posed also to the government?
Debbarma: Maybe because...
(Camera switched off on request)