Northeast India comprises of seven sister states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. Some years back Sikkim state has also been embraced by the North Eastern Council. The term, ‘Northeast’ was formalized through the British colonial administration as a frontier region. It is linked with Indian heartland through the 21 km. wide Siliguri Corridor, which is commonly known as the chicken neck, created by the Radcliff line, the boundary drawn by the British colonial administration before they departed from India in 1947. The corridor is flanked by Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
The Northeast borders on four countries, namely, China and Bhutan on its North; Myanmar on its East; and Bangladesh on its South and West. It has an area of 2.6 lakh sq. km. (7.6% of India’s land area) while its population is 39 million plus (3.6% of India’s population). It has 475 ethnic groups and 400 languages/ dialects are spoken here.
To understand the problem of insurgency in Northeast India it would be necessary to first know its genesis and analyze the narrative of each rebel group.
According to the Report of the 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission the Northeast represents a state of stable anarchy where the rule of law and other institutions of governance are subverted directly or through collusive arrangements to serve personal or partisan ends of the militants (7th Report, P.151).
The broad racial differences between India and its Northeast and the tenuous geographical link (the chicken neck Siliguri Corridor) contributed to a sense of alienation, a feeling of ‘otherness’ that subsequently gave rise to a political culture of violent separatism. Further, Northeast India is home to more than 50 ethnic rebel groups – a few demanding complete secession from India, others fighting for ethnic identities and homelands and some running the insurgency as an industry to spin easy money without any political ideology. Despite their resilience the narratives of rebel organizations are often vague and confused. The unsaid but universal truth about an insurgency situation is that there is always much more than meets the eye behind its dynamics. The contributory causes are many including inconsistencies in history, economic structures, development and identity alienation. It is also closely related to administrative weaknesses and incompetence, but above all official corruption that continually trample upon all sense of fair play and justice.
Throughout the last six decades as successive Indian governments tried to nationalize the political space in the Northeast by pushing ahead with mainstreaming efforts the struggling ethnicities of the region continued to challenge the nation building process. Despite recurring themes in rebel narratives such as political autonomy, economic justice, and cultural rights any understanding of rebel group in the Northeast must come to terms with multiplicity of voices, and the tensions that often exist between competing rebel agendas. A rebel group with a particular ethnic constituency may be at war with another rebel group, and indeed its primary opposition may not be with the Indian state at all. It might even cooperate with government security agencies in fighting rival group.
The national security–centric discourse about the Northeast shaped mostly by former bureaucrats and retired army, police and intelligence officers is heavily pro–state and insensitive to the vulnerabilities of the common man and dismissive of the frequent transgression of rights of its own citizens by the state.
It is of significance that Northeast India has become the natural habitat of retired military, paramilitary, police, and intelligence officers, whose physical and mental capabilities are on the wane, charged with responsibilities to run the affairs of the region.
The backdrop to many of the Northeast’s conflicts is immigration from rest of the sub– continent and the resultant fear of minoritization by many of the region’s indigenous ethnic groups. The flow of population from densely populated East Bengal began in 1920’s. The steady population flow from mainland India particularly from Bengal into the plains of Assam and Tripura accentuated the ethnic and religious diversity and introduced a nativist – outsider dichotomy to the simmering conflict. The Partition of India
intensified the migration pressure on Assam and Tripura since Hindu refugees now joined the flow. Tripura’s demography changed within two decades as Bengalis became a powerful majority. The fear that other Northeastern states would go the Tripura way weighed heavily on indigenous people and early settlers throughout the Northeast and provoked more militants to take up arms. After the Partition Assam was pressurized to accept more than six lakhs refugees by 1961. When the Assam Chief Minister, Gopinath Bordoloi opposed, Nehru threatened him with denial of development funds unless refugees were allowed to settle in Assam. Sardar Patel, the then Indian Home Minister even wanted the Assam government to distribute reclaimable land evenly between landless Assamese peasants and Bengali Hindu refugees. That did not go down well with the Assamese. Assam’s middle class and rural masses were immensely resentful of the state’s changing demography and land lost to Bengali migrants and colonial exploitation by the Indian state. Assam felt also slighted by the economic exploitation of the state by the Indian state. The oil refinery agitation raised this issue. From the initial 0.1 million tones in 1947 Assam’s annual crude oil output touched a peak of 5 million tones in the 1970s. Before the anti–foreigner agitation Assam received only Rs. 42 per tone of crude oil as royalty. The Government of India collected six times that amount in cess. Assam would get only Rs. 54 as sale tax on a tone of crude oil while Government of India collected Rs. 991 on the same quantity. For plywood extracted from Assam the state received only Rs. 35 – 40 lakhs a year while Government of India got Rs. 80 crores. Assam sale tax collections from tea hovered around Rs. 20 – 30 crores per year until the outbreak of anti – foreigner agitation in 1979 whereas West Bengal made 60–70 percent more because the head offices of the tea companies were located there.
The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) took shape in April 1979 in Sibsagar, once the seat of the Ahom kingdom. ULFA began as an expression of opposition to more than 100 years of exploitation. Most of its members believed that Delhi would listen only to militant voice but not to mere agitation. They talked of the need of an independent Assam, where scientific socialism would be the way of life and where its natural resources would be exploited for the benefit of its people and not to benefit unscrupulous power elites in Delhi. It views the failure of the Assam Accord as one more proof that India’s political leadership is uninterested in addressing issues that Assamese public cares deeply about.
Land is another important factor in the on–going conflicts in the Northeast. It is the struggle for land as territory that each emerging ethnic nation claims to own as a right. For example, the assertion of Naga identity and its nationhood seeks to assert claims to the Naga inhabited areas of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur and even in Myanmar. Many of the rebel groups are demanding homelands and adopt armed militancy to achieve them. These armed groups often attack settler communities or rival tribes as part of a strategy of ethnic cleansing to achieve ethnically compact homelands. It has become a trend for almost each ethnic community in the Northeast to claim nationhood. Obviously, the next step is the corresponding search for a geographical space where it would operate. In fact, the territorial claims of most of the communities lead to non–negotiable contestations. The assertions of national claims along smaller tribal and ethnic lines have been compounded by the inclusion of territorial claims.
When India became free Assam was the prima donna of the Northeast. The entire region except the erstwhile princely states of Manipur and Tripura was tied to the state in some form or the other. As India faced one tribal insurgency after another and demand for separate tribal states increased Delhi alienated Assam by politically reorganizing the Northeast in 1972. From the womb of Assam the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland were created. This hurted the Asssamese sentiment. Now, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) is demanding a separate state from Assam. To achieve this end it attacked the Adivasis, Bengali and other communities to drive them out from the area of their claim. The Adivasis, soon set up their own militant group the Adivasi Cobra Militants of Assam (ACMA). It and Bengal Liberation Tigers (BLT) joined hands and attacked several Bodo villages after the massive Bodo sponsored violence in May–June, 1996. Another Bodo group, Bodoland Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF) is also fighting for a separate Bodo state. It has also teamed up with Bengal Liberation Tigers. Further, Dima Halan Daogah (DHD) is fighting for a homeland of Dimasas while the United Peoples Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) is fighting for a separate homeland for Karbis in Assam.
In Tripura the rapid demographic change in the state provoked a group of young tribesmen to form a succession of insurgent groups that promised to throw out the Bengali settlers and liberate Tripura from an administration dominated by them. The Tribal National Volunteers (TNV) emerged in 1978 sustained by the politics of tribalism promoted by the Tripura Upajati Juba Samity (TUJS). It entered into an accord with Government of India in 1988. Within four years, however, two new rebel groups were born : All–Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) and National Liberation Force of Tripura (NFLT). Both are sustained by their zeal to drive out Bengali settlers from the state, who are seen as responsible for the physical, cultural, political and economic marginalization of the indigenous tribesmen. The TNV and NLFT have strong evangelist overtones. They regard the acceptance of Christianity by the tribesmen as the one and only way to break away from the dominant Hindu–Bengali culture. However, the ATTF has stayed away from the religious debate.
Thus, it is clear that the objective of none of these groups either in Assam (except ULFA) or Tripura is secession from India.
In Manipur revolutionary movement was started by Hijam Irabot Singh. He opposed Manipur’s merger with India and proposed a Purbanchal state which was to include Manipur, Tripura, Cachar and Mizo hills. He advocated later that Manipur should be a republic with a responsible form of government. He demanded restoration to Manipur of Kabaw Valley, which is believed to have been given away by Nehru to Burma. The public of Manipur, particularly the youth, were very unhappy with the way Manipur, a princely state with a Constitution of its own and an elected Assembly, was annexed to the Indian Union. It felt humiliated by the way the state was put as a Part–C state after the merger. Till almost the end of the fifth five–year plan very paltry sums were allocated to the state for development purposes. The agreement of merger, which the Maharaja of Manipur allegedly signed under duress, contains no clause to benefit the state and its people. Feeling slighted and deeply hurt some groups of Meiteis took up arms to fight for restoration of pre–merger status of Manipur. In 1964 state’s first separatist group United National Liberation Front (UNLF) was formed. In 1978 another outfit called Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) came into existence. Another insurgent group that surfaced around the same time was the Peoples Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK). By mid 1979 the three groups unleashed a fierce spell of urban and semi–urban guerrilla warfare in the Imphal valley. New rebel groups like Kangleipak Communists Party (KCP) and Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) also appeared in the horizon some years later. KYKL was formed after a split in the UNLF. Many smaller outfits mushroomed in the valley in the last one decade including an outfit of Manipuri muslisms (Meitei Pangals) under the name of Peoples United Liberation Front (PULF). Since 2003 the Manipuri rebel groups, especially UNLF have grown stronger and have done even the Naga army could not do at its peak, that is to hold on to its base areas in the face of determined Indian military offensive. In the hill areas of Manipur the Kukis formed many rebel groups under the acronyms of KNA, KNF, KLA, etc. In 2008 the Indian army signed a Suspension of Operation (SoO) with eight Kuki groups in an effort to use them against the valley insurgent groups. Presently, in Manipur, both in the valley and the hills, there are more than two–dozen rebel outfits. Objectives of quite many of these outfits are obscure.
According to the report of the 2nd Administrative Reform Commission Manipur is currently the most insurgency ridden state. It is reported that militant organizations are virtually running a parallel government in many districts in the state and they are able to influence the decision of the state government in awarding contracts, supply orders and appointments in government service. It is also reported that militant organizations indulge in wide spread extortion and hold ‘courts’ and dispense justice in their areas of influence. Such a situation results in erosion of faith of the people in the constitutional governance machinery. It is well documented that militants siphoned off food grains meant for public distribution system. Similarly, the virtual extortion racket run by various militant groups at a number of points, collection of protection money from business and salaried classes have been extensively documented (2nd ARC, 7th Report, P.151).
A 2006 year–end assessment by the South Asia Intelligence Review described Manipur as the most violent state in India’s Northeast. Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh said already twice that most of the troubles in the region came from Manipur. The rise in militant and state sponsored violence is palpable in Manipur as is the all–pervasive lawlessness that is exemplified by killing and kidnapping for money, large scale extortions and frequent blockade on its major highways by rebel groups for demand of money. Unless the scenario changes dramatically Manipur is heading to be India’s Bosnia. The situation is compounded further by the demand of NSCN (I-M) to integrate Naga inhabited areas of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur to form what is being called the Nagalim (Greater Nagaland). This stirs up Meitei passion and is goading the Meitei insurgent groups into preparedness for a fight to finish. If and when that eventuality arrives at all, they would get a huge popular support. Manipur would then be a veritable inferno.
The Naga insurrection posed the first major challenge to India’s post colonial nation–building project. It has also been South Asia’s longest running guerilla campaign. The Nagas were never a homogenous ethnic entity. The varied tribal character of their polity prior to their conquest by the British has been acknowledged by the Western, Indian and Naga Scholars. The first definite expression of the Naga desire for self determination goes back to the visit of the Simon Commission in 1929. The Naga Club, the first political group among the Nagas, told the Commission in a memorandum that the British should ‘leave us (Nagas) alone once you leave so that we determine for ourselves as in ancient times’. In February, 1946 the Naga National Council (NNC) was formed with 29 members and two Central Councils, one based at Kohima and the other at Makokchung. In June, 1946 when the Cabinet Mission Plan was announced the NNC adopted the resolution supporting the demand for autonomy within Assam. However, Nehru insisted that Naga should form a part of India and Assam. In 1947 when the Indian Advisory Committee on the Aboriginal Tribes visited Kohima the NNC put forward a proposal that provided for i) a 10 – year interim government for the Naga people having full powers in respect of legislation, executive and judiciary; ii) full power for collection of revenue and expenditure; iii) an annual subvention by the guardian power to cover the revenue gap and iv) a force maintained by the guardian power for defence and to aid the civil power. But no agreement could be arrived at between the Advisory Committee and the NNC. The Assam Governor, Sir Akber Hydari’s subsequent agreement with the NNC brought back the Nagas to the path of reconciliation. Though the NNC accepted the Hydari agreement dispute arose on some provisions. Angami Zapu Phizo took over the organization of the NNC and declared independence a day before India became free and set the Nagas on a path of conflict with India. In 1975 the NNC signed the Shillong Accord. In 1987 the NNC split and the breakaway faction, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) emerged to give Naga rebel movement a fresh lease of life. In 1988 the NSCN also split into two factions, namely NSCN (Isaac– Muivah) and NSCN (Khaplang). Both factions are now in negotiations with Government of India.
In the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram insurgency activity is comparatively less. Sikkim is completely free of insurgency.
Impact of insurgency activities on society, development and politics in the Northeast is deep , wide and complex. Some of the serious negative impacts are : Internal displacement of population. The Northeast has witnessed eight major cases of conflict–induced internal displacements in recent years: a) the displacements of Hindus and Muslims of Bengali descent from and within Assam; b) the displacement of Adivasis (Tea Tribes) and Bodos within and from Western Assam; c) the displacement of Bengalis from Meghalaya, particularly Shillong; d) the displacement of Bengalis from and within Tripura; e) the displacement of Nagas, Kukis and Paites in Manipur; f) the displacement of the Reangs from Mizoram; g) the displacement of the Chakmas from Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram; h) the displacement of Karbis and Dimasas.
Public psyche is deeply wounded and twisted. A fear psychosis and a great sense of insecurity became pervasive due to frequent cases of kidnapping, killing, threat and extortion; Frequent violations of human rights take place at the hands of the insurgents as well as of the security forces. Thus common man suffers; System of administration of criminal justice is derailed. Failure to differentiate common law crimes from insurgency -related crimes has serious consequences. Criminal investigation and trial are short – circuited. Police are wont, more often than not, to resort to invocation of National
Security Act to detain suspects or to killing them in fake encounters. Even police officers became subservient to insurgents. Police became unscrupulous and a terror to the people; Education of children is frequently disrupted. There is heavy exodus of school-going children from the region resulting in big outflow of fund from the region. Of late a queer debate is on as to which of the two rights viz., right to life and right to education, is more important, when all the educational institutions in Manipur were closed for months following an agitation launched by Apunba Lup, a civil society group of Manipur. Manipur government holds that right to education is more important than right to life; Politics is rendered completely polluted. Nexus between politicians and insurgents has made election a farce. Elected representatives cease to be representatives of the people and thus are not responsible and accountable to the electorates but answerable to the insurgents, who managed their winning; Large portions of funds meant for development works are siphoned off and pocketed by insurgents. Majority of good contract and supply works are cornered by the insurgents in connivance with politicians and officials. Qualities of works cornered by the insurgents are extremely poor, if they execute them at all. Often they get paid without doing the works. Large amounts of food stuffs and other consumer items are siphoned off by the insurgents and resultantly the poor suffer; Businesses and enterprises failed because of frequent extortions by insurgents. Inspite of Business Summits very few are interested to invest in the Northeast though resources and potentials are abundant. Except Assam, the Northeast is an industrial desert. Insurgency is largely responsible for it; In Manipur women are extensively used as carriers of demand letters, explosives, firearms, extorted money, etc. This will have serious social consequences in future.
The positive impact of insurgency is that it has woken up Government of India and made it acutely aware of the existence of a region of the country called North East India. India’s ignorant mass is made aware of the extent of the country and has taught them that it is not only the face or the chest or the parts in the front that make a person. Back and other smaller limbs are also equally important.
Many theories have been propounded and suggestions put forward by academics, scholars and researchers for finding lasting solution to the insurgency-induced conflicts in the Northeast. It is almost consensus amongst them that either a military fix or a development fix or a combination of the two would not bring about a solution to the problems. According to Bethany Lacina, a Research Associate, International Peace Research Institute, Oslo in her essay, ‘Rethinking Delhi’s Northeast India Policy’ writes that those who put forward such easy solution do not address the embedded nature of rebel groups in the political process of the Northeast. Only concerted efforts to establish the rule of law, a system of accountability and faith in the formal institutions of governance can break the cycle of violence. She believes that a political system less ambivalent towards the rule of law in theory as well as in practice can marginalize these groups relatively easily. She also believes that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act applicable in the Northeast and state of Jammu and Kashmir does harm than benefit by encouraging the public dissent / resentment. What a dozen of middle aged women did on 15th July, 2004 at Imphal standing naked in front of Kangla Fort ,where Assam Rifles was lodged, shouting and carrying banners that read ‘ Indian Army Rape Us’, ‘ Indian Army Take Our Flesh’, after a young girl, Thangjam Monorama was picked up from her house in the early hours of 11th July by Assam Rifles and her mutilated body was found in a nearby field next day with marks of torture and rape. This was unique expression of resentment. According to Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee instituted by Government of India in November 2004 to look into the Act, the Act is being perceived by the public as a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination. It recommended that AFSPA be repealed and that it be replaced by extending the jurisdiction of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act of 1967 as amended in 2004.
The AFSPA creates ‘India’ and a ‘Not–India’. It splits India into a nation and a camp with the former under the rule of law and the latter in a zone of exception. A young unmarried girl, Irom Sharmila, has been at fast since 2000 demanding repeal of the Act. She has been put in judicial custody and forcibly nose – fed there. Yet, Indian leaders remain unmoved and unconcerned. Questions that came to mind are can a democracy be sustained under military boots? Is Northeast India under democracy?
Sanjoy Hazarika, an eminent journalist from the region, a writer and a Fellow of the Centre for Northeast Studies and Policy Research, New Delhi observes that time is of the essence. India has wasted fifty years dealing with its rebellious minorities in the Northeast. It cannot afford to continue this piecemeal approach. Only a doctrine embracing regional, economic, environmental and security concerns can transform the jungles of unrest into communities of prosperity (Hazarika: Strangers of the Mist, P.330)
Bhagat Oinam, Associate Professor of Philosophy, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and a well-known writer observes in his article, ‘Preparing for a Cohesive Northeast–Problems of Discourse’ that the voices of dissent in multi–ethnic Northeast India that shape the region’s many rebellions reject not only the Indian national narrative, but often also the naarratives of ethnic communities living together closely with one another. He says that what is urgently needed today is to construct a cohesive and comprehensive narrative of the Northeast that relates more than exclude. The need is to narrow down the gap between one community and the other, to minimize stereotyping and to diminish the boundary of the ‘Insider’ and the ‘Outsider’ as often played through the politics of the indigenous and the migrant. This is possible through a dialogic discourse. It is all about constructing transparent, participatory and objective narratives, which are construed through rational consensus. Constructing narrative is a political act. And political decisions are largely consensual
Samir Kumar Das, Prof. of Political Science, Calcutta University in his essay, ‘Peace Sans Democracy? A study of Ethnic Peace Accords in Northeast India’, asserts that while a law and order situation may be both desperately necessary and effective in the short run, it cannot be an answer to the region’s complex ethnic and minority conflicts. We need to remind ourselves that the ‘gun’ can never solve the problem. It is necessary to win the ‘hearts and minds, of the people for which we will have to effect genuine socio – economic changes in their living conditions, if we are to retrogress insurgency.
Has the complex matrix of multi – pronged conflict situations in the region reached a kind of equilibrium to qualify to be what scholar and writer ,Sanjib Baruah , Prof. of Political Studies at Bard College, New York and Visiting Prof. at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi calls, ‘DURABLE DISORDER’ in his book, ‘Durable Disorder – Understanding the politics of Northeast India’, asks Pradip Phanjoubam, another Journalist of fame and a writer of standing from Manipur. According to Phanjoubam, with the objectives of these conflicts having receded on an incremental basis from any realistic vision it is reasonable to imagine that the conflicts themselves are beginning to be ends in themselves. For, it is unimaginable that the challengers to the Indian nation would not have realized that a military victory can only happen in the wildest dreams. Hence, a low-intensity conflict that can be sustained for long becomes the only strategic option left. Similarly, with the increasing realization of a similar diminishing of prospect for a comprehensive solution the establishment too may in fact have deliberately or otherwise shifted its focus in meeting the challenge to an equilibrium where the conflicts are managed and maintained at a pitch that can again be descubed as a ‘durable disorder’. Phanjoubam suggests that to find a lasting solution one should be able to look beyond the fire engulfing one’s house.
Sanjib Baruah asserts that as long as a crudely developmentalist and national security–centric mindset continues to shape policy, the goal of achieving peace in Northeast India is likely to remain elusive.
Subir Bhaumik, an eminent journalist, academic researcher, writer and BBC’s East India Correspondent writes in his essay, ‘Just Development – strategy for Ethnic Reconciliation in Tripura’ that without ethnic reconciliation there can be no solution to the ongoing imbroglios in India’s Northeast. He in his book, ‘Trouble Periphery’ observes that the territorial integrity of Assam, Manipur and Tripura is crucial to the future stability of the Northeast. These are, and have been, multi–racial, multi–lingual and multi–religious states and if the region has to make a beginning in effective management of plurality and change, these three states have to stay the way they are. Further, he suggests that migration from other Indian states into the region should be discouraged; that protection of land for indigenous people should be ensured as alienation of land is one of the major sources of ethnic conflict in the Northeast; that illegal migration into the region from Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar must be stopped; that extensive autonomy for tribal regions must be established before they start resorting to violence; that a multi–ethnic ethos of governance be worked out; that empowerment of indigenous populations should not prevent a tough policy towards insurgents, who resort to ethnic cleansing and violent militancy and that once displacement has taken place the affected population should be provided security and arrangements for their return to ancestral villages as soon as possible should be made. He is also of the opinion that a working federalism should be the democratic bond between the Government of India and the Northeast Indian states.
These are the roadmaps suggested by thinkers, researchers, academics and Northeast watchers. Which one of them or the combination of which of them should be adopted to find a lasting solution to the festering conflicts in Northeast India should be left to the Indian government and the concerned states. But, as Sanjoy Hazarika said time is of the essence.
I am thankful to the NERCPA for taking up this burning issue. Let us all be sincere and serious about it. It concerns the destiny of the GenNext of Northeast India and the security of the nation.
Speech delivered by Shri Radha Binod Koijam, former Chief Minister, Manipur and presently the Leader of the Opposition in Manipur Legislative Assembly on 29th January, 2010 in the 12th NERCPA Conference at Shillong on January 28-30, 2010