“Customary Laws”

Customary Law and factors that necessitate codification of tribal customary laws and its application in tribal societies in the North- East India.

  Karaiba James
Asst. Prof. Dept of Political Science St. Joseph’s college Jakhama  

Customary law refers to the laws, practices and customs of indigenous and local communities which are an intrinsic and central part of the way of life of communities. Customary laws are embedded in the culture and values of a community or society; they govern acceptable standards of behavior and are actively enforced by members of the community.  

As these laws are peculiar to the specific cultures in which they have evolved, the global landscape of customary laws and practices is rich and highly diverse. While there are similarities from which common principles may be drawn, customary laws are often quite distinctive and as such do not lend themselves easily to a “one-size-fits-all” approach.  

Thus, a customary law is the habitual course of conduct of a society and contains dos and don’ts based on its norms, practices and usages, mechanisms such as taboos, sanctions, social rituals, culture, public posture and ethics of each individual. These norms thus restrain their pattern of behaviour and regulate the social, cultural and religious aspects of the individual and the family.

(Visto 2003: 5).

Basic to the customary law is its acceptance by the community. The laws may begin as customs with localised application but are accepted slowly by the rest of the community through a gradual process over a long period if it feels that its introduction is good for it or does it no harm. It is important here to note that, customary laws may be or may not be written down. What is important is that, written and unwritten rules which have developed from the customs and traditions of communities. For customs and traditions to become law, they must be: Known to the community, Followed by the community, and Enforceable.  

Every tribe lost some of their cultures and customs in the 500 years since contact with Europeans. But most tribes did retain their most important cultural customary expressions. Today, many tribes are seeing a rebirth in interest of their arts, stories and rituals. In fact, some tribes are tired of non-Indian "wannabes" trying to adopt parts of American culture without any real ancestry and without being willing to take on the responsibilities that tribal membership brings with it.  

The factors that necessitate codification of tribal customary laws and its application in tribal societies in the North- East India.  

1. Repositioning Library Professionals in the new age: Today, professional librarians in tribal regions of the North east India like in Nigeria and other parts of Africa are facing the challenges of becoming irrelevant in the digital environment. This is because the traditional ways of handling and managing information are fundamentally changing. If professional librarians are not re-awakened to reposition their stand in the profession, they might be by-passed. Librarians in North-East India must improve on their ICT and internet literacy in this changing environment in order to fit in very well in this era of information technology and globalization.  

2. Management of Cultural Institutions: Libraries, museums and cultural institutions or ministries need to manage their cultural heritage in such a way that they will become access point to users. To do this, these heritage resources need to be digitalized for better preservation. The purpose of preserving anything is to enable access to it in future. Without access, to cultural heritage it would be difficult for people to learn from the past successes and failures. Therefore, the challenges of digitization, preservation and accessibility of cultural values and customs remain a big task for library professionals.  

3. Competition: Increasing globalization creates winner-take-all market for cultural output. That is why Carden (2008) referred to it as a double-edged sword capable of helping national cultures to revitalize their cultures, customs to face other cultures and custom. The challenge for librarians is that those with technology advances, the authors and creators of technologies are better positioned to use these tools to improve on their cultural heritage. This is capable of masking Naga cultures at the global level.  

Professional librarians in tribal regions of the North- East India have the task of repackaging their cultural heritage in order to meet international standard. This is so because survival in the new global business market calls for improved productivity and increased competition.  

4. Expansion into the Hinterland/Rurality: There is the need to provide enabling facilities for the rural community. Cultural heritage informations are accessible to only those who have the internet or satellite TV, leaving out a substantial segment of the world population. However the village or local areas in the country are places where some of the immovable heritage is found. For the rural community to benefit from the services provided by Information technologies, the government should extend these facilities to that area in order to bridge the ICT divide.  

Raja Devasish Roy has rightly pointed out in his article “challenges for juridical pluralism and customary laws of indigenous peoples”: that apart from other challenges of customary laws today, there are other challenges that need to be met by indigenous society in order to protect its cultural rights and integrity. Among these, the most difficult are those that come from within indigenous society itself. This is especially the case in the urban and peri-urban indigenous settlements where the influence of customary social rules based upon oral traditions, ritual, and ceremony are relatively weaker than in the rural areas. In more and more cases, the former practices of communities responding collectively to challenges facing them are giving in to responses by families and individuals. This is both weakening traditional social ties and making the youth more susceptible to cultural influences coming from outside, while providing no opportunity to them to learn about and practice their traditional indigenous culture. Custom-oriented values espoused by the traditional leaders can hardly match the extra-indigenous cultural influences in terms of packaging, style, fashion, and entertainment value.  

In the 21st century, a good number of Indian tribals particularly the nagas are starting to live in urban areas, losing contact with their reservations and other members of their tribe. This makes it harder for these urban Indians to express and reinforce their cultures. Sometimes the closest they come is at the big city pow wows where dances and costumes are reduced to pan-Indian stereotypes. As pow wow announcer Randy Edmonds puts it, "Many tribes have lost their own traditions. They have lost their own dances, and pretty much lost their language”. So in order to retain our 'Naganess' one has to borrow from another community to keep that Naganess going." Not to exaggerate, the situation is the same with the case of the tribals in the North east India and particularly with the Nagas of the North East India.