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History Of Bonded Labour Within Indigenous Communities: The Untold Story Of Arunachal’s Puroik Tribe

Bonded labour can be considered as another form of slavery where a weaker section of people is forced or coerced to labour for the dominant communities. They are neither paid adequate wages nor can they leave their employment. Although this system is usually attributed to caste structures in India, very few people know that such an apparatus existed among a few indigenous communities too. Taw Yalla examines the present predicament of the Puroik tribe of Arunachal Pradesh some of whom served as bonded labour in the past and for whom freedom has come with huge challenges.

Rawa village is one of the resettlement colonies for the Puroik tribe. Photos by Taw Yalla

At the tender age of 10, Makchi, a girl from the Puroik tribe of Arunachal Pradesh was “given” as a brideprice to her master’s new daughter-in-law as they could not afford the customary mithun (Gayal). The master belonged to a dominant and prosperous tribe. Makchi’s duties included helping the newlyweds with cooking, cleaning, and various other domestic chores. Makchi’s master was and still is a practising nurse and her children are educated in the best schools. In contrast, the only time Makchi ever went to school was to pick up her master’s children.

“Not being well versed in the language of her masters, she had difficulty following instructions and was subjected to verbal, mental, and physical abuse if she ever slipped up at work. Whenever Makchi fell terribly ill and her condition worsened, her parents were notified, and the duty of her masters ended there. At 16, she passed away and was buried in her village”, reminisces Dr. Kameng Natung, who heard the story from his parents. In the past Dr. Natung’s family also “owned” a Puroik couple (a husband and wife). Today, however, he is a proponent for the Puroik cause and supports their human rights.

If Makchi were alive today, she would have been around Lungli’s age. Lungli (23) is another Puroik girl who was born to parents who were bought as bonded labour by the family of Dr. Natung. However, whereas her parents worked as domestic help, Lungli was a free girl. She now lives with Dr. Natung’s family in Arunachal Pradesh’s Veo in the Pakke Kessang district as a choice. The family had taken her in after her father died and her mother remarried. Lungli was always a free woman and chose Dr. Natung's family as her own.

Two residents of Rawa Village

The anecdotal stories of Makchi and Lungli’s parents are just snippets from the history of the Puroik people who some decades ago were exploited as bonded labour. Not many people outside of the state would be aware of the stories of tribal hierarchies where within indigenous communities the weaker tribes lived a life of exploitation and servitude. While there is no recorded history as to when some of the members of the Puroik tribe began to be “owned”, there is a common consensus that it started in the 1970s. Traditionally, the members of the Puroik tribe used to work as the labour force of the neighbouring tribes in return for metal, money, and alcohol. However, it is believed that during the 70s, the dominant tribes stopped giving payments and instead let the Puroik families live with them and do the domestic and farm labour. Although bonded labour is banned in India, the tradition of keeping Puroiks as unpaid labour existed in the state at the time. As with the case of Makchi and Lungli’s parents, some people could be given away to other families. Being bonded labour the Puroiks were at the mercy of the masters. If the masters were kind, they would be treated with compassion and if the masters were cruel, they would be treated with disdain.

Today the Puroiks are a free tribe and their settlements cover six districts in the state. Their true freedom began in the 1990s when the dominant tribes stopped keeping them as labour. Some say that this was because of the conversion to Christianity which preached universal brotherhood and condemned the use of “slaves”. The official census indicates that there are approximately 9,000 Puroiks, but members of the community believe that the actual number ought to be over 20,000. People of the more dominant tribes refer to them by the derogatory term sulung or sullung. Whereas the Puroik tribe is free to chart the course of their future, in the absence of adequate affirmative action, they are still suffering from lack of education, widespread poverty, and denial of basic human rights.

The only way to reach the village is by walking 17 kms

One of the Puroik settlements is the Rawa Village in Arunachal Pradesh’s East Kameng district which is a testament to the urgent need for intervention. The road to Rawa is a challenge to any newcomer. It is not accessible via vehicles for most part of the year. Deep gorges and the constant threat of landslides discourage any adventurer. This writer had to cover 17 km of mountainous terrain on foot to reach this hamlet that consists of 40 Puroik families from five different villages. A Government Middle School built in 1987 is the only such centre of education. It has no Puroik teacher. In the absence of any health centres, the villagers have to travel to Pakke which is about 40 km away. From Pakke they can hitch a ride till the district hospital in Seppa.

Nestled within the beautiful mountains that are green with new vegetation, the village throws a sharp contrast as many houses remain half-constructed. This is because the land used to belong to another tribe which is now demanding compensation and disallowing the settlers from building homes on it. The villagers, meanwhile, furnish a paper on which the claimant/land owner alleges that he has not received any compensation from the government for building the sole school at Rawa, and asks for the school to be relocated or for due compensation to be paid. Since the government response is often delayed, it is the Puroik settlers who are asked to pay Rs. 10,000- Rs. 60,000 as land compensation to different land owners. If the settlers fail to pay, they are threatened and made to pull down the half-constructed pillars.

The villagers have no option but to resort to borrowing from relatives of the landowners at higher interest rates to ensure that their houses are not torn down. It is a vicious cycle but one that doesn’t seem to have an end in sight.

State infrastructure is bare minimum. There is no electricity, road, and employment facilities for the tribe.

Mr. Dao (name changed), a resident of the village, says that decades of living in servitude has denied the Puroik people economic independence. They do not own land and are therefore at the mercy of the dominant tribes in eking out a livelihood. The Rawa settlement for instance is surrounded by the lands and rivers of other tribes and so Puroiks are denied the right to fish and cut down trees. If any Puroik is found trespassing, they have to cough up penalties. Mr. Dao says, “We are asked to cough up penalties to the tune of Rs. 50,000 if we wish to fish in the river or cut a tree”. The village does not have electric lines and the solar panels they use can only manage to light up a few dim lights.

To make a phone call, the villagers trek for 7kms as there is no cellular reception at Rawa. Even to avail LPG cylinders, the residents hire a vehicle for Rs 7,000 per trip, excluding the costs of the cylinder. The main source of income for the villagers is by selling minor forest produce like the flour from Sago palm and marung (a kind of fermented bamboo shoot) for Rs. 700 rupees per basket. In a day, five healthy adults can make two such baskets.

Mr. Soja Rawa (name changed) recalls, “A member of the Autonomous Puroik Welfare Board (APWB) had visited Rawa in 2018 and even stayed in my house for the night. He never came again and though he tried, he failed to make us fully understand how to avail all the benefits that the government provides us in just that one night”. “We are all Christians and very thankful for the missionaries, apart from whom no other organisations have offered to help us” he adds, and points to a Puroik alphabetic chart published by the Indian Evangelical Mission that hangs on the bamboo wall.

A top official at the Directorate of Social Justice, Education and Tribal Affairs, on conditions of anonymity, said that the administration has set up hostel facilities for one hundred Puroik girls and boys each at Doimukh. Yet, in practice there is no awareness among the Puroiks about such facilities. For instance, when informed about the hostel by this writer, the residents of Rawa seemed completely boggled.

In the absence of affirmative action in raising the status of the Puroik tribe, the members, especially women, are routinely harassed. The residents of the Rawa village reveal that there are instances when the villagers have been asked to pay lure, a gift that was to be presented to the master of the sulung should the sulung’s daughter be married. They also complain that Puroik girls are derogatorily tagged as ‘sulung’ or ‘nyara’ by men of the other tribe who then seek special favours at dusk. When the women complain, the victims are treated as the guilty party.

Although the instances of discrimination are commonplace, the residents do not file formal complaints fearing inaction by the authorities and backlash from the majority community. The official reckons the practice of bonded labours/slaves does not exist anymore and if at all there are any cases, “very strict actions are taken against the perpetrators”. Most residents and people the reporter spoke to preferred to remain anonymous because of the same fear of backlash.

The life of a Puroik in the capital complex is relatively easier. The capital complex is the centre of all activities in Arunachal Pradesh. Here, many different tribesmen live alongside each other, each bringing its own flavour to the colourful hub.

The capital complex also has a Puroik colony that is connected to the main part by this hanging bridge

It was a Sunday afternoon when this writer visited the place and found the whole neighbourhood seated in the living room of Mr. Kapit Bechang, General Secretary, All Puroik Welfare Society (APWS). He resides in the Puroik colony, which was established in 2000, on land donated by Mr. Tadar Taniang. Despite being centrally located, there is no motorable approach road leading up to the Puroik colony. The retaining walls which protect the area from floods and landslides, especially during the monsoon rains, were only constructed not long ago, and the area is connected by what is known locally as a “hanging bridge”. When asked how the residents managed to build their RCC houses, Mr. Bechang laughed and replied that they carried the sand, iron and cement on their heads and shoulders. He narrates that the exploitation of Puroiks by neighbouring tribes started in 1984, a few years before Arunachal Pradesh gained statehood, and lasted until the mid-1990s when Christianity started gaining momentum.

Mr. Bechang believes that the reason the Puroiks were ‘freed’ was because the dominant tribes started repenting and mending ways, lest they be denied good health and afterlife benefits. In his opinion, Puroiks came to be wrongfully known as ‘sulungs’ because of their widespread historical oppression. He says, “Sulung was actually not a derogatory word. It was a name for a sub community within the larger Puroik umbrella. But years of marginalisation, exploitation and servitude have today made this term derogatory. The ‘owners’ did not bother learning the actual identity of the community and the term ‘sulung’ slowly became synonymous to a ‘slave’, ‘bonded labour’ or ‘serf’. It has become derogatory”. He adds, “There are good and bad ‘owners’. They have been of great help and have also caused us great misery”.

When asked about their cultural heritage, Mrs. Medap Bechang said, “I saw my mother weave these yarns made from a plant that grew deep in the forest. The cloth was so durable that it could not be damaged at all! I was too young to learn the craft and it is unfortunate that such traditions were never documented, as now no one in the community remembers how to make them. Most youngsters do not even know how to speak in Puroik”. She further added: “Even though I may not be here to witness the change, I wish that my children do not have to fight for the same things. I want them to be independent and not just rely on the government”.

Mr. Kapit Bechang shows the traditional attire of a Puroik woman

In 2019, Mopi Halley, All Puroik Student Union (APSU) Women Wing Presidential candidate, became the first Puroik woman to graduate with a science degree. Having lived in the capital all her life, she says she never experienced any discrimination because of her identity. But Dr. Kameng Natung, who completed his primary schooling in East Kameng District, recalls how in his school the sole Puroik student had been deemed an outcast with whom the other kids never engaged. Eventually, this Puroik boy dropped out of school.

All the Puroik tribe members interviewed said that no NGO or social organisation ever inquired about their grievances. Though the state government has provided multiple benefits and concessions, like establishment of Boys and Girls Hostel in Capital Complex for Puroik students and Vocational Training for Skill Development for Puroiks under the scheme ‘Livelihood Generation Activities of Puroik Community’, it remains to be seen if the most needy actually benefit from these as people living in the remote areas do not seem to even be aware of them. The office of the Directorate of Social Justice, Education and Tribal Affairs said that a major issue is that the community is scattered, making it difficult to focus development initiatives on a targeted area.

The nomadic lifestyle of the community also causes difficulties while conducting surveys. Recently, the government also organised awareness camps in all six districts with Puroik settlements. Misinformation about the community, lack of awareness and access to quality education are a few obstacles to development. Though there has been some progress, it has been slow, and the upliftment of the community would require a more streamlined effort.

The plight of the Puroiks in the town and in the villages have many differences but share the underlying similarity of feeling like they have been wronged. Siji Soja (name changed), the first Puroik engineer asks, “Puroiks are also indigenous people, so why is it that we are treated like outsiders and not seen as equals?”. Unfortunately, such queries only lead to finding more questions than answers.

About the author: Taw Yalla is a Nyishi woman and a lifelong student of history. Currently working at an art gallery, she wishes to contribute to the preservation of our larger indigenous heritage. She is the recipient of the Adivasi Awaaz Media Fellowship 2022.


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