Imagined Homeland

In the past we had visitors and researchers for wildlife, animal lovers. But in recent times we have “human researchers”. One of them is Sharbendu De, who came upto Shidi in January 2016 and then again this year in January. It seems he will be visiting several more times to complete the project “Imagined Homeland” about the Yobin people. The article shared below was published in a reputed journal, The Indian Quarterly, January-February 2018 and is being shared with the author’s knowledge.

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Imagined Homeland

BY SHARBENDU DE

The Lisu tribe of Arunachal Pradesh are refugees in their own land.Sharbendu De documents their lives, marked by incredible hardship and amazing grace

This work is an ongoing project documenting the life of the indigenous Tibeto-Burmese Lisu tribe who live in the dense forests of Arunachal Pradesh along the India-Myanmar border. A community that lives without roads, electricity, hospitals, phone connectivity, emergency evacuation services or schools for their children.

Of the 4,800-odd Indian Lisus (known as Yobin in India), roughly 3,000 live inside the forest and neighbouring areas in Arunachal’s Changlang district. In 1983, the Government of India notified 1,985 sq km area of the contiguous forest as Namdapha National Park and Tiger Reserve, without consulting the Lisus. Overnight, they were declared poachers and encroachers in their own land, triggering decades of evictions, subversion of constitutional rights and systematic marginalisation. They are Indian citizens but almost entirely without rights.

In the late 1970s, a 157-km road was proposed, to connect the nearest town Miao with Vijoynagar, the last Indian village on the IndiaMyanmar border. But, even today, MV Road remains an endless mud and slush track making vehicular commute impossible. The Lisus trek for three to five days, each way, to reach Miao, often getting injured, falling sick, or worse.

Basic supplies, including oil, spices, salt and medicines, have to be transported on head loads by porters. A kilogram of salt priced at Rs 20 elsewhere costs the Lisus between Rs 80 and 150. In the absence of schools, they teach their children. Since the government’s healthcare support is negligible, they have health volunteers from each village to care for their sick.

Refusing to protest or take to arms, the Lisus simply focus on finding solutions. They grow their rice and vegetables, sustainably extract forest produce, build each other’s homes, bury their dead, pray and feast together. In the absence of an external economy they mostly barter, living symbiotically with nature as a self-sufficient community. These gentle people call the forests “home” and consider the idea of life outside the forest as inconceivable. We belong here, they say, quietly.

Gandhigram village, outside Namdapha National Park
People of Gandhigram, Hazolo, Vijoynagar and nearby villages, as well as those living inside the core area of Namdapha, have been waiting for decades for a better life. They continue to wait.

Aguhum village, inside Namdapha National Park
David Yobin, 55, with his youngest son Yuleba and wife Jemana in their kitchen. Given the cold terrain, the Lisus keep a re going virtually at all times. Friends and family huddle around and spend time together. In the left background, a stack of salt packets can be seen. David lugged 50 kg of salt from Miao at one go to last several months, and to avoid paying inflated local prices.

Hazolo village, outside Namdapha National Park
The community organised a farewell lunch at the village church for the priest who had been transferred to another village after three years of service. Every household cooked rice, yam and other items and brought them to the feast. The church paid for the pork.

Namdapha National Park
Chakma porters take a break on their journey carrying rations to the last villages on the India- Myanmar border. Refugees from Bangladesh, these hardy men carry 80-100 kg of rice from Miao to Vijoynagar. It takes these porters 10-14 days to drag the rations on their bicycles through 157 km of dirt track that cuts through Namdapha National Park before reaching villages on the eastern fringes. They are paid a mere Rs 100-120 cartage per kg for their pains.

Aguhum village, inside Namdapha National Park
Brothers Sayuba and Yuleba go exploring in their backyard after school. The village school is run by Christian missionaries who engage teachers from Aguhum village at a monthly salary of Rs 4,000. The school is not affiliated to or recognised by India’s education systems and there are no organic linkages for these children to enrol in other schools once they graduate.

Aguhum village, inside Namdapha National Park Khiabo Yobin, 55, lives with his wife and children deep inside the core area of Namdapha. He had 11 children, but only four survived. He prays regularly in the village church. “The church is a symbol of unity and love for me. I find it the most important place,” he says.

Gandhigram village, outside Namdapha National Park
Phuyohey Yobin, 38, is the first Gram Bura or village chief of Gandhigram, the biggest Lisu settlement outside the Park. Ever since Phuyohey became chief, he’s been wanting to do things for the community, but his hands are tied because of the uncertainty of their residential status. “Without the essentials and a good road how can I bring change to my village? We need a good road even if I’m to transport people’s cardamom from their plantations. Now we have to privately hire trucks and because of the dirt track, they charge us exorbitant amounts.”

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