By Reni Jacob:
“We want to see our children grow up in freedom, and to be educated in order to have a dignified life and decent livelihood, and be free from the clutches of our Maalik (owner)”. These are the words of Jonathan, one of the elderly folks from the Puroik tribe.
The Puroik tribe is one of the most educationally and economically backward “scheduled tribes” of the hill tracts of Arunachal Pradesh. Economically, they are at a transitional stage between a hunter-gatherer and agricultural lifestyle. They claim their kinship with the Khoa or Bugun tribe. They retain their traditional religion of shamanic nature called Donyi-Polo (The Sun and the Moon) with some adherence to either animism or Christianity. They number roughly between 7,000 to 14,000 people, and are mostly found in the districts of East Kameng, Kurung Kumey, Papum Pare and Lower Subansiri.
The Puroik tribe is a classic example of a tradition-bound innocent tribe which has been under the serfdom and servitude of stronger tribes in regions like Bangnis, Mejis, and Nyishis for centuries. The Puroiks are also known as Sulungs, (a Bangni term which “slaves”) among the local folks of Arunachal Pradesh. The Puroiks have been virtual slaves of the larger tribes who have kept them under ransom and trapped them in dire poverty for generations.
According to the 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery report by the International Labour Organization, an estimated 40.3 million people are in modern slavery, including 24.9 million in forced labour, and 15.4 million in a forced marriage.
As we progress towards our 73rd year of independence, it’s ironical that we still have families and communities around us under the shackles of slavery and oppression in India. Modern-day slavery is often hidden in plain sight, human beings have been trafficked for use as forced labour, prostitutes or even for the removal of their organs. The reality is until you start looking for it, it may seem like somebody who is at work in a factory, or in a mine, or a farm, or a household.
A fact-finding visit was conducted by International Justice Mission to the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh in the month of August 2018 to conduct a preliminary study on the practice of customary slavery, prevailing among the tribal communities in the region. Arunachal Pradesh known as the “Land of the Rising Sun” is home to some of the most indigenous tribes. It is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the world with a rich cultural heritage. With a total population of one million, 70% are tribal, containing 21 major tribal groupings with over 100 ethnically distinct subgroupings.
There are two forms of slavery happening in this region. They are distinct although not completely detached from one another. In both cases, the powerful communities of owners make a profit from the exploitation of the subservient communities who have no means of escaping their fate of servitude.
The first is the realities of the customary slavery practice that is prevalent within the Puroik community of Arunachal Pradesh. The Puroik community is also referred to as ‘Sullong’, which means ‘slaves’ in the Bangni language, have been under the serfdom of stronger tribes in the region, like the Bangnis, Mejis, and Nyishis, for centuries. The slavery of the Puroik community (‘slavery’ is used here to include all the kinds of exploitation that they suffer; forced/child marriage, debt bondage, violence and abuse, and the loss of rights and freedoms). The second form of slavery is the trafficking of children into Arunachal Pradesh from Assam and Bangladesh, for the purposes of forced labour, marriage, and domestic servitude.
The poverty and financial instability of the Puroiks force them to take mortgages from their owners and they end up being obligated for life. Every single Puroik family has a slave owner who decides the fate of their family members. This slave owner can sell or dispose of the Puroik Children, especially the girls as brides or domestic servants, as they please. These young slave brides are bartered for a few Mithuns (a bovine species of north-eastern hill region of India). These child brides are forced to marry men old enough to be their grandfather and are forced into a life of sexual slavery. During our visit to one of the Shelter Homes, we met a few young girls who were victims of forced child marriage, who ran away with their infant child from such precarious situations.
The situation of the Puroik tribe is a classic case of intergenerational bonded labour and slavery that rests upon an ancient social structure, which takes away resources, opportunities, and fundamental freedoms from the Puroiks and gives profit to the owners’ communities. It includes the elements of debt, social/customary obligation and succession, leading to a forfeiture of freedom of employment, the right to receive minimum wage, the right to move freely throughout India and the right to sell goods and services at market value. Puroik children suffer a loss of their childhood, through forced labour, sexual/domestic servitude, forced marriage and a life of indebtedness. They are bartered and this is considered as a way of life.
Secondly, the victims of the inter-state trafficking of children, particularly between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, for domestic work are mostly from the marginalized groups (native and Assamese Adivasis, migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Chakma refugees from Bangladesh, and the Puroiks) and from poverty-stricken families. Children are trafficked from the tea gardens of Assam and moved across state borders. Majority of these children are abused physically, psychologically and sexually and in some cases, they are badly beaten up and abused by their owners. Children are also bought and sold within the state of Arunachal Pradesh from districts such as Namsai and Wancho. Holongi is another village in the capital district of Papum Pare which is known to be notorious for the sale of children within the community.