Terra nullius


The non-local rulers not only refused to integrate with locals but also considered learning their language below their dignity. Imposition of Urdu as the compulsory national language soon after partition was a manifestation of the terra nullius mindset

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur

In 1770 Lieutenant James Cook claimed possession of the whole east coast of Australia by raising the British flag at Possession Island off the northern tip of the Cape York Peninsula — after declaring it terra nullius (empty land). Terra nullius is not a geographical term but is a political concept adopted by the colonialists in which people simply cease to matter. They chose to declare Australia terra nullius not because they were unaware of the people living there but because they considered the indigenous people as irrelevant and inconsequential.

People cannot be wished away and confrontation erupted once the first fleet of British convicts, soldiers and officials arrived in Australia in 1788. In 1790 the Aboriginal chief Pemulwuy with his son Tedbury led guerrilla-style resistance, which lasted several years.

In1791 released convicts were granted land around Parramatta and the original inhabitants were slowly swamped by increasing colonists; the white population in Sydney had by 1800 risen to 8,000 from1,000 in 1788. In 1770 the Aboriginal population was estimated at between 750,000 to one million and about 1,500 lived in the Sydney region. By 1845 only 50 people were surviving at Botany Heads, Sydney, while the 2006 census reveals that the indigenous population of Australia is about 517,200. Colonialism guarantees permanent demographic changes.

Demographic changes were and still remain the mainstay of colonialism, as these are essential for colonial policy’s success. They simply disregard the historical and human rights of the native people and effectively turn inhabited lands into de facto terra nullius.

The adoption of terra nullius policy as an essential ingredient of colonialism has not been accidental because colonialists fully understand that the attachment to land is not entirely because of its economic importance. Territory plays an important role in shaping cultural and ethnic identity and terra nullius policy is basically aimed at destroying the cultural and ethnic identity of the colonised people. Consequently, the culture and education promoted by them is aimed at discrediting and degrading the indigenous knowledge, history and lifestyles, leaving young people with very low self-esteem, thereby facilitating their subjugation.

In 1816 Governor Macquarie began severe repression of the Aborigines after attacks on farms near Sydney. Their free movement was curbed and no armed Aboriginal person was to appear within a mile of any settlement and no more than six were allowed to ‘lurk or loiter near farms’. Passports or certificates were issued to those who conducted themselves in a suitable manner to show they were officially accepted by Europeans.

The Australian Agricultural Company, a big pastoral company, was granted one million acres (404,000 hectares) in the Hunter Valley in1822 after Britain decided to reduce import duty on Australian wool. In one instance Henry Dangar, a Government surveyor, granted himself 100,000 hectares there. Indiscriminate land grabbing dealt a devastating blow to the Aboriginal people in New South Wales and resulted in the Dunghutti people, who previously owned 250,000 hectares on the north coast of NSW, being confined to 40 hectares only.

It was only in 2008 that the Australian government apologised to the Aborigines for more than two centuries of relentless injustice, discrimination, deprivation of historical rights and lands, forcible religious conversions and adoptions aimed at culturally deforming them. Some justice!

The colonisers have always pursued their advantages with bloody determinedness. In North America and Australia the indigenous people have been relegated to the economic and political wilderness and Latin America still suffers from the terra nullius attitudes. The indigenous populations deprived of everything they owned count for nothing except anthropological interest.

Colonialism is a reprehensible absurdity and its depredations and injustices in the Australian, American, African and Asian continents constitute the worst chapters in the annals of human history and stand out as the nastiest examples of human greed and cruelty ever witnessed. Ironically, these very colonists present themselves as paragons of justice and human rights today.

To ensure the continuity of their policies and attitudes the colonists pass them over to their legatees. The legatees bred and nurtured by colonists become the new colonists and this in fact has been the worst legacy of colonialism because these cloned colonists continue to pursue old policies with a vengeance, vindictiveness and venom surpassing even the original colonists.

The ruling classes that took over the reins of power in South Asia were indoctrinated with this pernicious terra nullius mindset. They have been pursuing policies tantamount to declaring inhabited lands as terra nullius. The problems in Balochistan, Sindh, NWFP, East Bengal, Kashmir, Mizoram, Nagaland, Orissa, Manipur and Jharkhand, etc., stem from the terra nullius attitude of the ruling classes.

The new set of rulers were from Urdu-speaking migrants and Punjab by virtue of their predominance of the Muslim League, bureaucracy and the army. They set themselves the task of making the Bengalis, Baloch, Sindhis and Pashtuns conform to their brand of ideology and culture. Overnight the people residing in these areas became second-class citizens and were forced to accept the new ideology and culture at risk of otherwise being labelled traitors.

The non-local rulers not only refused to integrate with the locals but also considered learning their language below their dignity. Imposition of Urdu as the compulsory national language soon after partition was a manifestation of the terra nullius mindset.

Though a majority, the Bengalis were treated with denigration. The Baloch were subjected to military actions, the Sindhis were deprived of their language and rights. These attitudes led to the creation of Bangladesh and provoked persistent insurgencies in Balochistan and resentment in Sindh. Sadly, the elite in these provinces instead of protecting the rights of the people, decided to share the pie with the new rulers.

Balochistan, Sindh and NWFP have continually suffered because of the terra nullius policy, which has been the cornerstone of the governance strategy by the legatees of the British. No regard has been shown for the language, culture, history and rights of the people. ‘National interest’ and development have been the key words for justifying exploitation of resources. Systematic demographic changes have been practiced in Sindh and now attempts are underway in Balochistan as well.

Things are no better in the neighbour, which is supposedly the largest secular democracy in the world. The long running insurgency in Kashmir and protests on the question of land being allotted to outsiders shows the resentment that people have against such policies. Kashmir has now been under siege by the Indian troops for twenty years. In protests against land allotment at least 42 people were killed and more than 1,000 wounded by security forces. Sadly they too, like their counterparts here, still think that outsiders fan insurgencies.

The Dongria-Kandhas people, a unique primitive tribal group who live near the verdant Niyamgiri hill ranges on the border of Kalahandi and Rayagad districts of Orissa, is on the brink of extinction. They consider the mountaintop of the Niyamgiri as inviolate and protect the forests on the top as Kaman forests, where their god Niyamraja Penu resides. They consider it a sacrilege to cut trees, some of which are a thousand years old.

Niyamgiri and its people are now threatened by the proposed mining for bauxite by Vedanta Alumina Ltd. Bauxite mined here will be used for their 1 one million tonne alumina refinery, which cost around Rs 4,500 crore. All this is being done in the name of development — the same classical excuse that was used to justify and enforce slavery. If slavery was justified, then these depredations are too.

Benevolence and compassion has no place in the colonists’ designs. Palestine is considered terra nullius, as are Kurdistan, Tibet, Kashmir, Balochistan and Chechnya; as was Algeria. The West could see the ten feet high Berlin Wall but are blind to the ten metre wall in the West Bank where Israel also uses 80 percent of the water of the Palestinians.

The terra nullius policy has led to insurgencies and the consequent repeated military actions in Balochistan, Kashmir, Nagaland, Orissa and Mizoram, etc., and also created the urban-rural divide in Sindh. Unless these attitudes change urgently and radically, there is very little hope of avoiding the impending catastrophes that have so far been partly and temporarily staunched with the use of superior military firepower and a ruthless and corrupt bureaucratic machinery.

This article was first published on 19 December, 2009

The writer has an association with the Baloch rights movement going back to the early 1970s. He tweets at mmatalpur and can be contacted at mmatalpur@gmail.com

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