Monday, March 16, 2015

Alienation and Exclusion in the Northeast

Parvin Sultana


Northeast, a region which continues to spin stories of alienation and exclusion, was brought under British Empire only in 1826 under the Treaty of Yandaboo that ended the Anglo-Burmese war. And after independence it became a part of India. The accession of the region continues to be contested as being unjust. Manipuris feel their king was forced to sign the Instrument of Accession under duress as he was not allowed to discuss it with his Royal Advisors. On similar lines the Nagas feel that they were defeated by the British not India as there was no such entity as India before independence. Hence after the British left, the Nagas should have been left free instead of being passed over to India.

Scholars have enumerated the stories of this region’s continuous struggle for the recognition of the region’s distinctiveness. Since independence the nation’s constant quest has been nationalising space in Northeast and using this land frontier as a tool of nation building. A region which looks extremely different from other parts of the country undergoing rapid Indianisation fitted nicely in the discourse of state formation.  Apparent is Sanskritized names of Northeastern states such as Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. But one cannot overlook the fact that even after independence, Arunachal Pradesh continued to be called North Eastern Frontier Area for a long time giving one a peek in the government’s colonial mentality. Development of the region had a similar agenda. It was development imposed from above which fell short of taking into account the specificity of the region of Northeast.

It is this continued perception of Northeast through the prism of national security, aggravated post Indo-China War in 1962, along with the persistent underdevelopment of the region that has given space to subnational movements. Two major issues of grievances that fuel such movements are:
a)                  Immigration
b)                 Underdevelopment
British encouraged agriculturists from East Bengal to come and settle down as farmers. A dense population, settled agriculture and industry were seen as markers of civilization by the Britishers. Tea, rubber, oil fields were developed and labour migration took place. Huge tracts of land were siphoned for British tea planters under extremely liberal conditions of the Waste Land Grant Law of 1838. By 1901 it was one-fourth of the total settled land. Historian Amalendu Guha called it a Planter Raj. While Jayeeta Sarma calls it an Empire’s Garden.

In the face of continuous migration from other states and neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh, the majority Assamese speakers suffered from a minority syndrome- a fear of being turned into a minority in their own homeland. Assam’s culture was assumed to be threatened by this demographic shift. Foreigners would not have been a threat had the Assamese dominated the trade and commerce. Rather it was the migrants like Marwars from Rajasthan who controlled it.

This fear of minoritization can be traced back to the colonial days when Assam was treated as an extension of Bengal. It was only in 1873 Assamese became the medium of instruction owing to the demands of people like Anandaram Dhekiyal Phukan. Modernity brought with it the idea that a developed language is a marker of a developed civilization. This made language an active arena of politics leading to language riots in 1960 and 1972. Such assertion threatened Bengali speakers who comprised of about 22% of the population especially in district like Cachar. While Assam was being pulled in different directions by sub-nationalist movements, the Assamese speakers believed that having Assamese as the official language would ensure the continued existence of an undivided Assam.

Another burning issue have been the persistent underdevelopment of the region. As the agitators of Assam Movement point out the royalty that Assam gets for tea, oil is a little more than rent. Trade and commerce was dominated by business communities from outside the state. The Assamese felt disadvantaged. Most policies formulated far away in Delhi failed to incorporate the needs of the region. Development in Northeast has to be sustainable development and the policies should be made at the regional level by people who know the region and by taking cognisance of the ground reality of Northeast. At present some policies regarding building roads is meant to connect areas with a population of 1000 or more. But such a policy leaves out a huge no of villages of Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya which are sparsely populated. This is just one example how the region systemically is excluded in central policies.

Similar grievances accumulated over a period of time gave rise to conflicts in the region. Only Arunachal and Mizoram are comparatively peaceful. But even then while the flood displaced Chakmas from Bangladesh continue to be the bone of contention for the localites, Mizoram also has periodical upheavals with regard to Chin Burmese refugees who migrated from Burma. Low intensity armed conflicts has affected the area for such a long time that a militarised life has been normalised. The fight for a greater Nagalim is the oldest armed conflicts in India.

The linguistic re-organisation that took place in 1956 did not solve the problems of Northeast as Assam was a multilingual state. It became a theatre of cultural wars. When Assamese were busy fighting the Bengali speakers the hill tribes which initially supported the Assamese felt that such subnationalist aspiration will end up imposing Assamese culture and language on their tribes. Sensing this threat demands for separation came from Lushai (Mizo) hills, Naga Hills. To sort it out what the central govt did is a hasty division of Northeast over a period of time. It created 7 states but never looked at possible alternative solutions. What came out was cosmetic federalism. The fact that this did not solve the problem of ensuring cultural harmony is vindicated by the persistent and violent upsurges in the Northeast. This also fanned demands for ethnic homeland. Tribes felt that they can develop and feel secure only in their homeland.

One of the most famous manifestations of subnationalism was the Assam Movement that started in 1979 and was mainly concerned with the immigration issue. It was led by All Assam Students’ Union which was a non political body. It wanted to portray itself as if it embodied higher and nobler goals than merely usurping political power. The movement resonated the aspirations of the Assamese civil society. Associations like Axom Xahitya Xabha came up that aimed at the development of Assamese language and culture. However another product of the movement is the United Liberations Front of Assam. It was born in the radical fringes of the movement in 1980s. It believed that only through armed struggle it could regain the freedom that Assam lost in 1826. In the initial years, it used scientific socialism as rhetoric. However ULFA parted ways with the movement on the issue of immigration, rather it appealed to all who resided in Assam i.e., Axombaxi hence broadening their base. For the Assamese the ULFA members were “our boys”. Because of sympathetic officials, which the State called Subverted Bureaucrats the state could not crack down on the militants. During the six years of Assam Movement, subnationalism was at its peak leading to horrendous massacres like Nellie in 1983 which saw close to 3000 women and children being bludgeoned to death and it finally resulted in the Assam Accord of 1985. And with fresh elections, the student leaders formed a party called the Asom Gana Parishad and Prafulla Mahanta became the Chief Minister. But nothing changed. The new AGP government failed to deliver. As citizenship is a federal subject, Centre came up with a law called Illegal Migration (determined by tribunals) Act, 1983 which puts the onus of proving the nationality of the accused on the accuser. It is next to impossible to decipher who came to India before and after 1971 as they belong to the same cultural stock. Only around a 1000 immigrants were to be deported. The immigration issue continues to simmer.

ULFA faced a coercive face of the Hobbesian state in the form of counter insurgency operations like Operation Bajrang, Operation Rhino and most recently Operation All-Clear. ULFA which enjoyed popular support at one point of time lost that base owing to their violence which at times victimised the poor, women and children alike. ULFA gradually degenerated into an extortionist body. It started killing and kidnapping indiscriminately. After the death of Sanjoy Ghosh whose NGO working in Majuli became very popular, ULFA’s decline started. ULFA has been time and again pushed to the negotiating table.

Now let us take a look at how the Central Govt has attempted to solve these problems.  The solutions for the Central Govt have been twofold:
a)                  Militarist counterinsurgency
b)                  Financial packages for underdevelopment
For the central government, Northeast continues to be a land frontier which needs tight security. Insurgent groups which often have cross border connections need to be curbed as this may undermine the security of the nation. To curb insurgency the solution has been stringent militaristic rules in the form of Armed Forces’ Special Power Act (AFSPA) which has been in place for a few decades in the region. It gives impunity to the army and has put in place a Military Command structure called the Unified Command. This puts the Army under the control of the Centre. Such rules undermine the democratically elected state governments and local police. The attitude is that local people cannot be trusted. This attitude is further aggravated by the fact that retired Army Generals are often appointed as Governors of these states. Their gubernatorial interventions often insulate counter-insurgency operations from democratic practices and scrutiny. Counter insurgency put in place a diminished form of democracy in terms of basic freedom, rule of law and principles of accountability and transparency. The attitude of the Centre has been paternalistic and patronising, treating Northeast as a spoiled child who needs to be disciplined, normalised. A reason why low intensity conflicts continue to persist is underdevelopment and unemployment. Because of absence of work opportunities it was always very easy for the militant groups to recruit new members for very less amount of money. And violent counter insurgency operations can only eliminate a few militants, it does not change the ground realities of living. Financial packages were made available but this fact was not taken into cognisance that it did not percolate to the policies that it was meant for. Leakage of funds often ended up sponsoring the insurgent movements which it was supposed to curb. Any developmental initiative has to pay taxes to local militants. As a result young disillusioned people see being a part of the militant group more lucrative.

Policymakers fail to understand that Northeast is not only the northeastern part of South Asia but also the Northwestern part of Southeast Asia. It is the point where both South Asia and South East Asia converge. It is a part of the biodiversity hotspot of Southeast Asia. Studies have shown that the people of Northeast enjoy cultural affinity with Southeast Asian countries. Most tribes are present in more than one country. Nagas, Manpuris being in Myanmar, same tribes being inhabitants of Tibet and Arunachal, Tai Ahom of Assam being a part of the larger Tai community are all indicators of the deeper interconnections. The languages spoken belong to Tibeto-Burman family of languages. The Indian nation geographically is of recent origin and a resultant of political needs. The fact that these regions entered an agreement and joined Indian mainland on certain conditions should be respected. Ambikagiri Rochoudhary, a known poet of Assam, made a case for a loose federation and provisions for dual citizenship not unknown in federations in the Constituent Assembly debates. Immediately after partition such propositions might have sounded divisive but at present it can help as it can be used as an instrument to incorporate the later generations of immigrants. Rather than exclusive that would be an inclusive idea. More power should be vested in the democratically elected state govts. AFSPA has to be modified immediately.


Going back to the history, Northeast India was on the southern trails of Silk Road which connected western region of China through Central Asia to the Mediterranean. Just like Nations regions can also be imagined. As Keniche Ohmae points out nation states are dysfunctional for human activities and it has made way for transnational regions like Catalonia in Spain, Hong Kong in China etc. India’s Look East policy calls for a greater direct role for the Northeastern states. The natural outlets of Northeast need to be opened to trade with the Southeast Asia. India if it overcomes her fears can actually do to Northeast what China has done to its Yunnan, making it an international city. If this can be revived like the Nathu La Pass rather than funding development from mainland India which is ill connected to the region, the development deficit of the region can be addressed to a great extent. The region’s issues need out of the box-thinking and a move away from limiting categories like land frontiers.

The author is Assistant Professor at Goalpara College, Gauhati University, Assam.

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