Land rights of Indigenous Women in NE India

By: Dr Ch Jamini Devi *

The beautiful States of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya and Sikkim constitute what is known as northeast India. It is home of various tribes, ethnic groups and indigenous people.

There are about 300 million indigenous men, women and children worldwide. More than 5000 different groups of indigenous people live in more than 70 countries. They make up one third of the world’s 800 million rural people. These indigenous people face the problem of access of land, water and other natural resources found on their traditional territories.

Indigenous women experience many forms of discrimination not only from the surrounding societies but from within their own communities.

Although woman play a crucial role as producers, and caretakers of their societies and cultures, and of the well being of the communities, the importance of their social role is not always recognized. To the indigenous people land is everything. It dictates their life and constitutes their past, present and future.

Indigenous people have a distinctive spiritual and material relationship with their lands, with the air and water, flora, fauna and other resources. So the promotion and protection of the rights over lands and resources of indigenous people are vital. For bringing empowerment of women, land rights of women are becoming an area of increasing urgency.

There arises the need for women to be able to secure land property because women’s land rights intersects with other problems such as discriminatory inheritance patterns, gender based violence, privatization of community and indigenous land as well as gendered control over economic resources and the rights to work.

The inter-dependence of women’s human rights emphasizes the importance of women being able to claim their rights to adequate housing and land in order to lessen the treat of discrimination, different forms of violence, denial of political participation etc this calls for strengthening the recognition of women’s rights to land, which will help in lifting their adequate standard of living including the right to housing and freedom from forced eviction. In this context the present seminar is the need of the hour.

Women’s past and existing rights to lands in law and in customary practice in India are traced across communities and regions. It is found that Indian women have had virtually no customary land rights to land, save for matrilineal related practices in the ne India and southeast tribal customs and specific circumstances elsewhere.

Modern legislation, while a step forward, has yet to establish full gender equality in law to permeate practice. In this paper an attempt is made to highlight land rights of women of Manipur.

Women’s traditional land rights and access to labour have been eroded through a number of changes caused by colonial rule and modern development. Women have been excluded from most political movements. Thus their voice is often actively repressed. Current strategies for ‘sustainable developments’ are ignoring women’s historical role in the forest economy.

Further, these strategies do nothing to challenge the capitalist structures that caused massive forest depletion in the first place. Economic models of exchange rather than profit will have the primary goal of ensuring that community needs are met.

Land Rights for Women in Manipur

Manipur is a hilly state, which lies on the north-eastern border of India. It extends between 23 85′ and 25 86′ latitudes north and between 93 03′ and 94 78′ longitudes east. It covers an area of 23,327 sq kms and is bounded on the north by Nagaland, on the south by Mizoram and Chin state of Burma.

The territory which constitutes the present state of Manipur consists of a valley and a chain of hills which encircles the former on all sides. The hilly region covers about 92% of the total geographical area of Manipur. The valley as well as the hills has a slant towards the south.

The valley is in reality a plateau which is at the level of 2567 ft above the sea level. The state is divided into nine districts viz Imphal west (capital), Imphal East, Thoubal, Bishnupur, Chandel, Churachandpur, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul.

The State of Manipur is inhabited by various ethnic communities having their own distinctive cultural affinity. According to 2001 census, there are over 30 tribes in Manipur.

They are

Aimol, Anal, Angami, Chiru, Chote, Gangte, Hmar, Kabui, Poirao, Koireng, Kom, Lamgang, Mao, Maram, Maring, Mizo, Lushai, Monsang, Moyon, Paite, Purung, Ralte, Sema, Serite, Shonte, Tangkhul, Jhadow, Waishei, Zou, Kwaram, Tarao, Paomei and Kuki

These ethnic groups can be broadly divided into Meiteis, Naga tribes and Kuki-Chin-Mizo tribes.

None of the tribes gives the inheritance of land rights to women. There are also sizeable Muslim populations who are called Meitei Pangals.

There are also the Scheduled Castes

Dhupi (Dhobi)
Muchi (Ravidan)
Sutradhar and

The economy of the people of Manipur state is basically agrarian. About 70 percent of the people are engaged in agriculture for their livelihood. Both men and women have played an important role in the socio-economic activities of the state. Women also don an important role in the socio-economic activities of the state.

Women also work as important agents to promote socio economic and cultural developments of the state. In the field of political activities, the role of women was continued collectively resulting in the revision of some of the policy decisions of the ruling authorities which affected society negatively.

The position of women in Manipur when compared with women in other States in India is comparatively high. In this regard, SK Bhuyan observes ‘Manipur women have been enjoying a freedom which their sisters in India fail to attain. They were not confined to the four walls of their domestic life, they go out freely for purposes of petty trades mainly in the scale of products of their own hand. They weave fine durable textures where colours are ensembles in the most attractive manner’.

The declaration of human rights by the United Nations in 1948 has added another dimension by granting equal rights to both men and women. But in many parts of India the social reality is somewhat different. Majority of women specially in rural areas still remain traditional and continues to endure subordinate and inferior position in the patriarchal society.

Despite Manipur being a patriarchal society women still play a significant role and enjoy higher status then her counterparts in other parts of India. Nevertheless, there are certain social restrictions deforming her social jurisdiction. In the hilly areas of Manipur as per their custom women are not allowed to inherit parental property.

But they are given certain almirah and kitchen materials etc. at the time of their marriage. But in the valleys of the Manipur, parental property are distributed amongst their sons and daughters. However in Manipur sons are always given preference. This proves social condition of women is in a subordinate position in Manipur society.

Inheritance and succession follow the male line and female have no right to property. In case the family has daughters only, the property of the father passes down to his nearest lineage of male relatives of the deceased clans while daughters receive none.

Property Rights

As per the customary laws of tribals in Manipur women are deprived of family right of inheritance which goes to either the eldest son or the youngest son in the family. Generally amongst the rural communities women do not enjoy property rights.

And no movement has been found so far. Women still have not claimed family property rights. However, well to do families in the towns and cities and a few educated and enlightened arrange an equal share of family properties by including daughters.

In the hills, rights of the women are primarily governed by customary laws. But in the valley as far as inheritance is concerned there is no such distinction as ancestral or self acquired property. The father is the absolute owner of all the property in his possession.

After his death, sons inherit the property left by him. The widow succeeds to the property of her husband as long as she is alive without any legal authority. Provision is made for the unmarried daughters. Dues and debts incurred by the deceased father is the first priority before any division amongst the successors.

A divorced daughter has a right of abode at her father’s residence as long as she does not remarry. A sister also has the right to succeed to the property of a brother who has no wives and children.

Presently, there is no discrimination as to share of a validly married wife and that of the wife not validly married. They all share equally. An ummarried woman, or a widow or a khainaba (divorcee) is the full owner of the property which she earns by her own exertions.

In case a married woman receives a gift or a present from her father, mother or some other relatives or their friends, she becomes the full owner of that property.

A girl becomes full owner of the property and also of the articles given to her by her husband and relatives at the eve of her marriage. She can claim all such property at the time of her divorce. A divorced woman does not inherit any property of her husband by whom she has been divorced or whom she has divorced.

A son enjoys unfettered right to sell homestead as well as his house, but he is bound to accommodate his divorced sister, if any, at his new residence. Even though there is law for giving properties to daughters in practice, they do not get it.

The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms act, 1960
(No. 33 1960) (13th September, 1960)

An act to consolidate and amend the law relating to land revenue in the state of Manipur and to provide for certain measures of land reforms are as follows:
1. Be it enacted by the Parliament in the eleventh year of the Republic of India as follows; this act may be called the Manipur Land revenue and the Land Reforms Act, 1960:v
It extends to the whole of the state of Manipur except the Hill areas thereof; provided that the state Government, by notification in the official gazette, extend the whole or any part of any section of this act to any of the hill areas of Manipur also as may be specified in such notification.
It shall come into force on such date as the State Government may be notified the official gazette, appoint; and different dates may be appointed for different areas and different provisions of the act.
Any custom or usage prevailing at the time any of the provision of this act are brought into force in any area in state of Manipur and having the force of law therein shall, if such custom or usage is repugnant to or inconsistent with such provision, cease to be operated to the extent of repugnancy or inconsistency.

It may be such that the collective right to land for women may be seen in the Ima market, a place which belongs to the women solely and passed on to the daughter in laws. It was installed in 1504 before the Kangla inauguration in 1522 and renamed Sana keithen in 1559.

It is suggested for further discussion in the seminar and recommended to the concerned departments for the implementation.

Women should have an equal access to training and education for managing trade and commerce.

Local Governments should be given autonomous power to administration in an effective manner and it should give both man and woman equal rights of participation.

The need for capacitating women in terms of access control and ownership of land besides training is strongly emphasized.

Government with indigenous people should establish fair procedures for reviewing situations and for taking corrective measures to avoid unfair and discriminatory practices.

Customary laws are to be amended to give women enjoy property rights including land rights.

(Extract from the writer’s paper in the regional seminar on Land and Resource Rights of Indigenous Women in NE India held at Subansiri of Arunachal Pradesh on June 7 and 8, 2007)

* Dr Ch Jamini Devi, noted Educationist, Social & Cultural Activist, wrote this article for The Sangai Express . You can read her profile here . This article was webcasted on October 19th, 2007

Source: E Pao

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