Why Ethnic Conflicts Recur in Northeast India?
The Northeast of India is strategically an important piece of geography for India. Straddled as it is between Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Myanmar, the area is a vital land link for India’s ‘Act East Policy’. In a visit to the region last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi dreamt big for the North eastern region as India’s gateway to Asia in the 21st ‘Asian Century”. In a whirlwind tour covering Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura, the PM coined a new acronym ‘NEZ’ – Natural Economic Zone for the region to be developed through economic corridors to South East Asia. Addressing a regional police chiefs’ conference, flagging off the first train from Guwahati to Meghalaya, laying the foundation stone of the first railway line to Mizoram and inaugurating a power plant in Tripura, Modi announced a slew of much needed development projects including scholarships for students, a national sports university, agricultural colleges, upgraded power and digital connectivity and new railway lines. With a 60,000 crores budgetary allocation for the North eastern region, the PM’s focus was on infrastructure both inside and outside such as the road from Imphal to Mandalay in Myanmar.
The one critical issue that plagues the region however limiting its true potential are the recurring ethnic conflicts. In December last year, the Bodo Territorial Area District (BTAD) was impacted by violence when the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit faction) targeted Adivasi villages near the Assam-Bhutan border killing more than 81 innocent people. This kind of violence has continued since 1993, with Bodos targeting the minority communities in these areas. Added to this is secessionist violence, where ethnic rebel groups have waged a protracted violent struggle for secession from India. Foremost of these groups is the Naga National Council (NNC), the National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah (NSCN-IM), the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the United National Liberation Front of Manipur (UNLF) and the Peoples’ Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA), to name but a few.
The existence of multiple rebel armies in this picturesque but rather bloody landscape begs the question: why is there violence at all in Northeast India?
While there are several inter-related complex reasons, I highlight the five most critical as per my own research and field study.
First: the idea behind a modern democratic liberal state is to create a representative structure based on a constitution which envisions all communities to be represented and empowered politically. In India, this representation is based on a majority. This can have the inadvertent effect of promoting group loyalties. I believe the desire to assimilate and unify ethnic minorities into the larger fabric of Indian political life backfired creating fears amongst ethnic minorities that their culture, ethnic identities and politics will get submerged in the larger fabric of what they saw as “north and south” Indian politics of majority.
Second: history has its own role to play. Most of the ethnic communities in the Northeast especially the Nagas, the Kukis, the Dimasas, Hmars, etc had very little contact with the rest of India. In fact, the effort by Mughal Emperor Aurangazeb to include Assam within his reign was thwarted by Ahom general Lachit Borphukan in the famous Battle of Saraighat in 1671. Hence, even the Ahom rulers who ruled over Assam and had contact with the hill communities for 600 years maintained limited political contact with the rest of India. It was only after the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826 between the British and the Burmese that Assam came under British rule thereby including it as a province in British India. The British provincial government in Assam slowly started intruding into the hills since 1832 and they were resisted as was reflected in the famous battle of Khonoma in 1879. However, the British were able to establish their administration in the hill areas which also led to Christianity spreading into these otherwise animistic communities. In 1873 and 1880, the British established legislation, which maintained these areas as ‘excluded’ limiting contact with the outside world. Hence, when India became independent, a sudden entry of the modern Indian state into these areas created tension and fears that ‘the ethnic way of life’ is under threat.
Third: the presence of the Indian state in these areas is rather weak. Despite provisions like District Councils for enabling local representation via the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, the institutions of the state have remained weak and ineffective. Local people thereby do not believe that their rights will be respected and that the benefits enshrined in the Constitution will be met.
Fourth: most ethnic communities in the Northeast depend on agriculture barring a miniscule who move out to other parts of India. Thereby, land becomes a precious commodity for daily means of livelihood. Unfortunately, the claimants on land are many resulting in inter-ethnic violence supported by ethnically slanted rebel armies. The inability of the state to guarantee land rights, corrupt practices on land grants, and the helplessness felt by the common man has played havoc.
Fifth: all these reasons combine to create armed ethnic groups. However, protracted violence depend not only the root causes but also on the feasibility of violence, by which I mean the availability of weapons. Northeast India borders Myanmar which is part of a network of illegal flow of arms and drugs. Armed groups in Myanmar like the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the Karen National Union (KNU), the Shan State Army (SSA) help transport arms to Northeast armed groups for a price. Porous international borders vindicate this trade. Moreover, armed groups are able to maintain underground camps in neighbouring countries which further leads to the perpetuation of this violence.
There are no easy solutions to these problems. The immediate challenge is to provide a strong personal leadership at the top Indian political level to resolving the festering thorny issues that have long plagued the region. What needs to be done now is follow through with final binding political and administrative decisions to secure the region and ensure harmony amongst its multitude of ethnic groups and communities to truly get the ‘being India’s gateway’ share of prosperity in this ‘Asian Century’. This would require a different conceptualization than just state driven approaches based on a ‘synthetic’ sense of unity. Rather, it will require the meeting of cultures; of peoples; of hearts; of feelings generated that being part of the ‘Indian dream’ is truly emancipating for individuals and ethnic communities; rather a sense of organic natural unity in diversity; not something forced down from above (read Delhi) but something spontaneous, lively, and inspiring. This will require an attitude which sees communities in the Northeast as equal partners in the nation building process, realize more representation based on merit from the Northeast in India’s political bodies as well as respect for the sense of diversity from people in the Northeast towards others as well. The task ahead is uncharted territory but an endeavor that is both noble and wise.
*Dr Namrata Goswami is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed here are per