Northeast: A Thousand Assertive Ethnicities


(The article is a reproduction of the lecture given by Subir Bhaumik at Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture on June 10, 2012 at JNMDA, Manipur)
Mr. Chairperson, Prof. W. Nabakumar, Chairman of the Arambam Somorendra Trust, Dr. Lokendra, scholars, friends, ladies and gentlemen,

Eleven years ago, on this day, at Imphal’s Khurai Nandeibam Leikai, Arambam Somorendra, a pioneer figure in Manipur’s long saga of political protest and social movements, was killed by suspected militants of a valley-based group, perhaps those who did not agree with his thinking. The murder was an insult to the spirit of free thinking that has been Manipur’s forte and that has produced a plethora of absolute genius in this rather creative society. I am indeed honoured for being invited to deliver a lecture in memory of a man who did not merely establish what would seem to be a separatist organization to free Manipur from India but also a social reformer who believed spread of consciousness of the right kind should precede armed struggle and political movement for Manipur’s independence.

People offering floral tribute to Arambam Somorendro on his 12th death anniversary on Sunday. Pic: IFP

Somorendra founded the oldest separatist group of the Imphal valley — the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), on 24 November 1964 to achieve independence for Manipur and create a socialist society. It was a secessionist organisation and was the culmination of several movements like the Pan-Mongoloid movement and the Manipur Nationalist Party (MNP), that had raised the banner of independence in 1953. Later, differences within the outfit surfaced over the issue of strategies to be adopted. While Somorendra sought to spread ideological consciousness before launching an armed struggle, the more radical leader Oinam Sudhir Kumar established Revolutionary Government of Manipur (RGM) in December 1968. But under Somorendra’s influence, the UNLF   undertook a social reformation campaign against rampant alcoholism, gambling, drug peddling and drug abuse. The UNLF severely punished crime against women and claim to have shot dead more than 50 rapists.

Enduring theatre of Guerrilla War

I salute the memory of the man who meant and did so much for Manipur. As we drive into Manipur through the national highway, we are reminded by boards that we are traveling on a “historic road, the battleground of Second World War”. The Second World War was over a long, long time ago but war has not ended in Manipur or in India’s troubled Northeast. For more than fifty years, the Northeast has been seen as the problem child of the Indian republic. It has also been South Asia’s most enduring theatre of separatist guerrilla war, a region where armed action has usually been the first, rather than the last, option of political protest.

But none of these guerrilla campaigns have led to secession — like East Pakistan breaking off to become Bangladesh in 1971 or East Timor shedding off Indonesian yoke in 1999. Nor have these conflicts been as intensely violent as the separatist movements in Indian Kashmir and Punjab. Sixty years after the British departed from South Asia, none of the separatist movements in the Northeast appear anywhere near their proclaimed goal of liberation from Indian rule. Nor does the separatist violence in the region threaten to spin out of control. But neither do the conflicts go away — and despite a slew of accords with some of them, the Indian state has had to brace for more and more armed groups surfacing in the region — some to fight for separation, others to fight for autonomy, still others to contest the homeland claim of some other battling ethnicity.

The internal conflict in the Northeast has not only festered endlessly, they have spread to new areas of the region, leading to sustained deployment of Indian army and federal paramilitary forces on “internal security duties” against well-armed and relatively well-trained insurgents adept at the use of the hill terrain and often willing to use modern urban terror tactics for the shock effect. The military deployment, however, has aimed at neutralizing the strike power of the insurgents to force them to the table, but have never sought their complete destruction. So the rebel groups have also not been forced to launch an all-out do-or-die secessionist campaign, as the Awami League was compelled to do in East Pakistan in 1971. The space for accommodation, resource transfer and power-sharing that the Indian state offered to recalcitrant groups has helped control the insurgencies and co-opt their leadership.

Such a trans-regional process is now on, with Delhi appointing separate interlocutors to negotiate with the Naga rebel factions and for those active in Assam. Some rebel factions like the Paresh Barua faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the Manipur insurgent groups such as the Somorendra-founded UNLF or the RPF-PLA have ruled out negotiations with Delhi. While Barua has said he will talk only if Assam’s sovereignty is included in the agenda for negotiations, the UNLF has said India should conduct an UN-assisted plebiscite in Manipur to ascertain whether its inhabitants want to stay in India or not. Both Paresh Barua and UNLF chief Rajkhumar Meghen alias Sanayaima have given long interviews to the Seven Sisters Post that I edit. Now look at how Delhi decides on who to talk to. ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and UNLF supremo R K Meghen were both nabbed in Bangladesh and were later handed over to India. Meghen’s detention was not initially revealed until an expose in the BBC by this author. Now, both Rajkhowa and Meghen stand accused of waging war against India. Both were offered release and a free life if they agreed to negotiate with India by dropping the demand for secession. Meghen refused, so he stays in jail and faces trial. Rajkhowa agrees, so he and his colleagues walk out free and start negotiations with Delhi.

But this differential treatment has only encouraged insurgencies. Those who see their voice not reaching Delhi because of paucity of numbers have found that, if they challenged the Indian state by force of arms, they stood a reasonable chance of being invited for talks; and, if cooption was the price, they were ready for it. So, the insurgents have surrendered and given up armed movements but insurgencies have only multiplied in northeast India. Thus, whenever a rebel group has signed an accord with the Indian government in a particular state, the void has been quickly filled by other groups, reviving the familiar allegations of neglect and alienation. The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) in 2006 counted 109 rebel groups in Northeast India — only the state of Arunachal Pradesh was found to be without one, though Naga rebel groups were active in the state. Now a former sharpshooter of Dawood Ibrahim has returned to his ancestral Arunachal Pradesh and started a new rebel group.  Interestingly, only a few of these rebel groups are officially banned.  Of the 40 rebel groups in Manipur, only six were banned under India’s Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. And of the 34 in the neighbouring state of Assam, only two were banned. A good number of these groups are described as “inactive” but some such groups have been revived from time to time. Since post-colonial India has been ever willing to create new states or autonomous units to fulfill the aspirations of the battling ethnicities, the quest for an “ethnic homeland” and insurgent radicalism as a means to achieve it has become the political grammar of the region. So they say, in India’s Northeast, insurgents peter out but insurgencies don’t.

Phizo faded away to make way for a Muivah in the Naga rebel space, but soon there was a Khaplang to challenge Muivah and now a Khole and Khitovi to challenge Khaplang. . If Dasarath Dev walked straight into the Indian parliament from the Communist tribal guerrilla bases in Tripura, elected in absentia, there was a Bijoy Hrangkhawl to take his place in the jungle, alleging Communist betrayal of the tribal cause. And when Hrangkhawl called it a day after ten years of blood-letting, there was a Ranjit Debbarma and a Biswamohan Debbarma, ready to take his place. Many of the Manipuri ojhas who went to Lhasa for training and returned to start the PLA are either dead or retired to a comfortable life, but for a dead Bisheswar Singh or Kunjabehari Singh or a retired Chirom Ranjit Singh, there is a Irengbam Bhorot or a Praveen Manohar Mayum to take their place. Even in Mizoram, where no Mizo rebel leader took to the jungles after the 1986 accord, smaller ethnic groups like the Brus and the Hmars have taken to armed struggle in the last two decades, looking for their own acre of green grass.

Divide and Rule

Throughout the last six decades, the same drama has been repeated in state after state. As successive Indian governments tried to nationalise the political space in the Northeast by pushing ahead with mainstreaming efforts, the struggling ethnicities of the region continued to challenge the “nation-building processes”, stretching the limits of constitutional politics. But these ethnic groups also fought amongst themselves, often as viciously as they fought India, drawing daggers over scarce resources and conflicting visions of homelands. In such a situation , where crisis also provided opportunity, the Indian state continued to use the four principles of statecraft propounded by the great Kautilya , the man who helped Chandragupta build India’s first trans-regional empire just after Alexander’s invasion. Sham (Reconciliation), Dam (Monetary Inducement), Danda (Force) and Bhed (Split) — the four principles of Kautilyan statecraft have been used in varying mix to control and contain the violent movements in the Northeast.

But unlike in many other post-colonial states like military-ruled Pakistan and Burma, the Indian government has used the initial military operation in the Northeast only to take the sting out of a rebel movement. An “Operation Bajrang” or an “Operation Rhino” or an “Operation Khengjoi” has been quickly followed up by offers of  negotiations and liberal doses of federal largesse, all aimed at co-option. If nothing worked, intelligence agencies have quickly moved in to divide the rebel groups. But with draconian laws like the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act always available to security forces for handling a breakdown of public order, the architecture of militarization remained in place. Covert intelligence operations only made the scenario more sinister.

So when the Naga National Council (NNC) split in 1968, the Indian security forces were quick to use the Revolutionary Government of Nagaland (RGN) against it. Then when the NNC leaders signed the 1975 Shillong Accord, they were used against the nascent National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). Now both factions of NSCN accuse each other of being used by “Indian agencies”. In neighbouring Assam, the SULFA was created, not as alternate political platform to the ULFA, but as a tactical counter-insurgency plank, as a force multiplier for the Indian military machine. Engineering desertion and use of the surrendered militants against their former colleagues has remained a favourite tactic for authorities in the Northeast.

The China factor

But for an entire generation of post-colonial Indians, the little wars of the Northeast remained a distant thunder, a collection of conflicts not worth the bother. That is, until someone’s brother was kidnapped by the rebels, while working in a tea estate or in an oil platform or, until someone’s relative was shot in an encounter with them while leading a military patrol through the leech-infested jungles of the region. Despite the ‘prairie fires’ spreading in the Northeast, the sole encounter with this frontier region — albeit an ersatz one — that most Indians can lay claim to was confined to the tableau of tribal dancers in their colourful traditional kits paraded at Raj Path in Delhi on Republic Day. The national media reinforced the ‘girl-guitar-gun’ stereotype of the region’s rebellious youth, while politicians and bureaucrats pandered to preconceived notions while formulating ad hoc policies.

The border war with China, however, changed everything. As the Chinese army appeared on the outskirts of Tezpur, the distant oilfields and tea gardens of Assam, so crucial to India’s economy, seemed all but lost. Then came the two wars with Pakistan and Bangladesh was born. In a historic move, the Northeast itself was reorganized into several new states, mostly carved out of Assam. While these momentous developments drew more attention towards the Northeast, the powerful anti-foreigner agitation in Assam forced the rest of the country to sit up and take notice of the crisis of identity in the region. What began as Assam’s cry in the wilderness quickly became the concern of the whole country. Illegal migration from over populated neighbouring countries came to be seen as a threat to national security. And since then the Northeast has never again been the same. Just became more complex.

Expanding Economy Beckons

The anti-foreigner agitation unleashed both anti-Centre and anti-migrant forces  The ULFA grew out of the anti-foreigner movement against the “Bangladeshi infiltrators”, people of East Bengali origin who have been settling in Assam since the late nineteen century. Slowly, the ULFA’s anti-migrant stance gave way to determined separatism and it started blaming “economic exploitation by Delhi” for being responsible for Assam’s woes. But in the face of a fierce counter-insurgency offensive by the Indian army, it started targeting migrants again – this time not people of East Bengali origin but Hindi-speaking settlers from India’s heartland “cow belt” states.

In the first quarter century after independence, while the rest of the country remained oblivious to the tumult in the Northeast, the region and its people saw only one face of India. The young Naga, Mizo or Manipuri knew little about Mahatma Gandhi or Subhas Chandra Bose and failed to see how Indian independence mattered for him or her. What these young men and women saw, year after year, was the Indian soldier, the man in the uniform, gun in hand, out to punish the enemies of India. He saw the jackboots and grew suspicious when the occasional olive branch followed.  When rats destroyed the crops in the Mizo hills, leaving the tribesmen to starve, the Mizo youth took the Naga’s path of armed rebellion. Far-off Delhi seemed to have no real interest in the region — or so it was felt by the distant peoples in India’s far-eastern frontier.

In our generation, the situation began to change slowly, though the conflicts did not end. More and more students from the Northeast started joining colleges and universities in ‘mainland’ India, many joining all-India services or corporate bodies after that. Many complained of unfair treatment or even hostile attention but they remained behind to seek education and employment of a gainful kind. During my recent visit to Bangalore, I went to have a beer at a restaurant called Twenty Feet High. Of the ten waiters and waitresses, six were Nagas and four were Kukis, all ten from Manipur. Back home they may fight but out in Bangalore, they were all Northeasterners, with much more in common between themselves than with the locals. Though my good friend Sanjib Baruah usually thinks a Northeast identity does not work, it has come to stay — at least outside the Northeast. But that’s true for all. A Bihari becomes a Bihari when he leaves Bihar, In the state, he is a Thakur , a Kurmi, a Yadav or a Brahmin.

The media and the government have started paying more attention to the Northeast and even a separate federal ministry, Doner, has been created for developing the region.  Now federal government employees even get liberal leave travel allowances, including two-way airfare for visiting the Northeast – an effort to promote tourism in the picturesque region. As market economy struck deep roots across India, Tata salt and Maruti cars reached far-off Lunglei, Moreh and even Noklak. For a generation in the Northeast who grew up to hate India, it was now proving its worth as a common market and a land of opportunity.

Boys and girls from the Northeast won medals for India, many fought India’s wars in places like Kargil, a very large number  picked up Indian degrees and made a career in the heartland states or even abroad. The success of northeastern girls in the country’s hospitality industry provoked a Times of India columnist to warn spa-connoissuers to go for “a professional doctor rather than a Linda from the Northeast.”  But a Shahrukh Khan was quick to critique the “mainland bias” against the Northeastern Lindas in his great film “Chak de India.”  And recently Aamir Khan in an interview with the Seven Sisters Post, has agreed to explore a plot for a film based on Northeast — and, if possible, with the beautiful girls and boys of this region in major roles.

Human Rights — A Game Changer?

More significantly, the civil society of heartland India began to take much more interest in the Northeast, closely interacting with like-minded groups in the region, to promote peace and human rights. Suddenly, a Nandita Haksar was donning the lawyer’s robe to drag the Indian army to court for excesses against Naga villagers around Oinam, mobilising hundreds of villagers to testify against errant troops. A Gobinda Mukhoty was helping the nascent Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) file a habeas corpus petition seeking redressal for the military atrocities at Namthilok. Scores of human rights activists in Calcutta, Delhi or Chandigarh were fasting to protest the controversial death of a Thangjam Manorama or in support of the eternally fasting Irom Sharmila, the Meitei girl who says she will refuse food until the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act is revoked. Jaiprakash Narain and some other Gandhians had only worked as part of the Naga Peace Mission for a solution between the nation-state and the rebels. But the fledgling Indian human rights movement, a product of the Emergency, kept reminding the guardians of the state of their obligations to a region they said was theirs.

How could the government deny the people of Northeast the democracy and the economic progress other Indians were enjoying? What moral right has Delhi to impose draconian laws in the region and govern the Northeast through retired generals, police and intelligence officials? How could political problems be solved only by military means? Was India perpetrating internal colonization and promoting “development of under-development”? These were questions that a whole new generation of Indian intellectuals, human rights activists, journalists and simple do-gooders continued to raise in courtroom battles, in the media space, even on the streets of Delhi, Calcutta or other Indian cities. Whereas their fathers had seen and judged India only by its soldiers, a Luithui Luingam or a Sebastian Hongray would soon meet the footsoldiers of Indian democracy, men and women their own age with a vision of India quite different from the generation that had experienced Partition and had come to see all movements for self-determination as one great conspiracy to break up India.

In a matter of a few years, Indian military commanders were furiously complaining that their troops were being forced to fight in the Northeast with one hand tied behind their back. Indeed, this was not a war against a foreign enemy. When fighting one’s own ‘misguided brothers and sisters’, the rules of combat were expected to be different. Human rights violations continued to occur but resistance to them began to build up in the Northeast with support from elsewhere in the country, so much so that an Indian army chief, Shankar Roychoudhury, drafted human rights guidelines for his troops and declared that a ‘brutalized army [is] no good as a fighting machine’.

Human rights and the media space became a new battle ground as both the troops and the rebels sought to win the hearts and minds of the population. It would, however, be wrong to over-emphasize the success of the human rights movement in the Northeast. Like the insurgents, the human rights movement has been torn by factional feuds at the national and the regional levels. But thanks to their efforts, more and more people in the Indian heartland came to hear of the brutalities at Namthilok and Oinam, Heirangoithong and Mokokchung. Many young journalists of my generation also shook off the ‘pro-establishment’ bias of our predecessors and headed for remote locations to report without fear and favour. We crossed borders to meet rebel leaders, because if they were ‘our misguided brothers, (as politicians and military leaders would often say) they had a right to be heard by our people. One could argue that this only helped internalize the rebellions and paved the way for co-option.  But it also created the ambience for a rights regime in a far frontier region where there was none for the first three decades after 1947. Facing pressure from below, the authorities began to relent and the truth about the Northeast began to emerge.

The yearning for peace and opportunity began to spread to the grassroots. Peace-making in the region still remains a largely bureaucratic exercise involving shady spymasters and political wheeler-dealers, marked by a total lack of transparency. Insurgent leaders, when they finally decide to make peace with India, are often as secretive as the spymasters because the final settlements invariably amount to such a huge climb-down from their initial positions that the rebel chieftains do not want to be seen as party to sellouts and surrenders. Nevertheless, the consensus for peace is beginning to spread. Peace without honour may not hold, but both the nation-state and the rebels are beginning to feel the pressure from below to make peace.

The Elephant and Blind Men

In the last few years, the Northeast and the heartland have come to know each other better. Many myths and misconceptions continue to persist, but as India’s democracy, regardless of its many aberrations, matures and the space for diversity and dissent increases, the unfortunate stereotypes associated with the Northeast are beginning to peter off slowly. The concept of one national mainstream is seen as an anathema even by the likes of Shahrukh Khan — hence the banter on the Manipur girls’  “failure” to learn Punjabi in “Chak De India”.  The existence of one big stream, presumably the “Ganga Maiya’ (Mother Ganges), is perhaps not good enough for India to grow around it. We need the Brahmaputras as much as we need the Godavaris and the Cauveris to evolve into a civilization state that is our destiny.  The country cannot evolve on the misplaced notion of a national mainstream conceived around ‘Hindu, Hindi and Hindustan’. The saffrons may win elections because the seculars are a disorganized, squabbling, discredited and leaderless lot, but even the Hindutva forces must stretch both ways to accommodate a new vision of India – or else they will fail to tackle the crisis of the Northeast.

India remains a cauldron of many nationalities, races, religions, languages and sub-cultures. The multiplicity of identity was a fact of our pre-colonial existence and will be a fact of our post-colonial lives. In the Northeast, language, ethnicity and religion will provide the roots of identity, but a larger national identity should have more to do with civilization and multi-culturalism, tolerance and diversity, than with the base and the primordial. For the Northeast, the real threat is the growing criminalization of the movements for self-determination and the conflicting perceptions of ethnicity-driven homelands that pit tribes and races against each other. “Freedom fighters” are being replaced by “warlords”. They in turn may become drug lords because the region’s uncomfortable proximity to Burma, where even former communists have turned to peddling drugs and weapons. Money from organized extortion may have given the insurgents in Northeast India a secure financial base to pursue their separatist agenda, but it has also corrupted the movements. And groups who have violently pursued the agenda of ethnic homelands and attempted ethnic cleansing have threatened to turn the region into a Bosnia or a Lebanon, increasing the levels of militarization and adding to the democracy deficit that Northeast has always suffered from.

A New Contradiction?

Despite these gloomy forebodings, some like the visionary B. G. Verghese, see great opportunities for the region in the changing geo-politics of Asia.  India’s “Look East” thrust in foreign policy may help the northeast by way of better transport linkages with the neighborhood and greater market access for products made in the region. But the government Vision 2020 document, recently unfolded by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, admits that the region needs huge improvement in infrastructure to become sufficiently attractive for big-time investors, domestic or foreign. Petroleum products made in the Numaligarh Refinery in Assam are now being exported to Bangladesh by less expensive river transport, but Assam’s crude output has sharply dwindled in recent years and at least a part of Numaligarh’s future requirement may have to be imported via Haldia port in West Bengal.

Environmentalists and indigenous leaders have also opposed the huge Indian investments in the region’s hydel power resources, saying that may prove to be dangerous in a sensitive geo-seismic region. As India tries to open out the Northeast to possible big-time investments, particularly in hydel power, a new kind of conflict, emanating from contradicting perceptions of resources-sharing, may replace the old style insurgencies.  It all depends on how the leaders of the locality, province and nation shape up to the challenges of the future and make the most of the opportunities. We have to remember that the Northeast did not exactly erupt in revolt immediately after Partition and Independence. Even the Nagas who challenged the Indian state’s desire to extend control to their hills gave the Phizo-Hydari accord a chance. Fighting erupted only in 1956 when India started to push in para-military troops in large numbers. The other states all gave India a chance before some of their idealistic young men joined the revolt, setting up armed groups to challenge the Indian state. They were fed up with poor governance, with neglect and economic deprivation, with insensitive handling of their distinct problems caused by both physical, psychological and historical distances. They all had a ready narrative because no part of India’s Northeast had been incorporated in a pre-British empire – so the argument that the British should free India and leave these people to decide on their own carry some weight. Alleged manipulation of the ruling Maharajas have provided rebels in Manipur and Tripura with a cause to fight for. Somorendra was one such young soul who was provoked to revolt because he saw no future for his state and his people in the way the Indian Republic was shaping up.

Changing Patterns of Ethnic Alignments

The Northeast is sometimes referred to as India’s ‘Mongoloid fringe’, where India looks less like India and more like the highland societies of Southeast Asia. Many argue that this racial element makes India’s Northeast very different from the rest of the country. The Northeast was also one of the last parts of the subcontinent to be conquered by the British. Before the British, no empire based in India controlled any part of what makes up the Northeast today. Migration from the Indian heartland was limited to preachers and teachers, traders and soldiers of fortune. The heartland’s cultural influence touched only Assam, Manipur and Tripura, where the kings adopted variants of Hinduism as the state religion. On the other hand, before the advent of the British, successive waves of Tibeto-Mongoloid tribes and nationalities from north-western China, northern Burma and even Thailand and Laos came to occupy various parts of what is now the Northeast. They fought amongst each other, built small local empires at each other’s expense, traded with each other, but never allowed the area to be taken over by anyone from the Indian heartland. This uninterrupted freedom for a great length of time and the region’s racial distinctiveness gave its people a sense of being different from the rest of India.

All of India’s major religions are practised here. Christianity dominates the hills, Hinduism and Islam are the major religions in the plains. Animistic faiths and Lamaist sects also abound. Assamese and Bengali speakers are the most numerous, but a host of other languages and dialects are spoken. Although ethnicity has dominated the social and political processes in the Northeast, the region has also been subjected to the complex interplay of ideology and religion before and after India became free. In the tangled web of India’s Northeast, the pattern of ethnic alignments has continuously evolved and changed.

In parts of the Northeast, including Assam, Manipur and Tripura, language has served as a basis for ethnic identity. But in the hill regions, the tribes and the generic identities evolving around them have provided the platform for identity formation. Political expediency and the constant realignment of ethnic groups helped create new identities. The Paites were part of the great Kuki-Chin family of tribes not so long ago, for example. But in their quest for self-assertion, the Paites — surely the more militant among them — came to project themselves as Zomis since the late 1980s. They insisted they were not Kukis and when the Kuki-Naga feud erupted in full fury in the mid-1990s, the Paite militants sided with the Naga rebels against the Kukis. The Kukis and the Paites, however, speak variants of the same language. They have much in common amongst themselves but share little with the Nagas.

In India’s Northeast, where the stress on ethnicity has often produced splintered identities, the Paites are a classic case of a breakaway identity, of a smaller tribe challenging the larger tribe within a generic formation, fragmenting the process of nationality formation. The reverse process has happened as well. Smaller tribes have identified with a bigger tribal or generic identity, if only for self-preservation during conflict between battling ethnicities. As in Manipur, smaller tribes like the Anals have identified with the broader Naga identity, reporting themselves as Nagas in successive censuses.

The major impetus for re-tribalisation has been the material advantages that follow recognition as a scheduled tribe in India. Reservations — like those for scheduled castes — in education and employment, legislatures and parliaments, have often prompted racial groups in Northeast India to seek recognition as scheduled tribes. The Deshi Tripuras or the Lashkars in Tripura were happy to be recognised as ‘local Bengalis’ during princely rule but have subsequently tried to seek recognition as a scheduled tribe. The Meiteis in Tripura have done the same. The Bodos have long been denied the benefit of autonomy because as ‘plains tribals’ they were not covered by the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which assures autonomy to tribal areas. Now that the Indian government has finally signed an agreement with the Bodoland Liberation Tigers Force (BLTF), the Sixth Schedule will have to be amended to cover the proposed Bodoland Territorial Council in western Assam.

The many Faces of Language

Even linguistic preferences in India’s Northeast have often shifted due to political considerations, concealing ethnic and religious divisions. In Assam, the migrant Muslim peasantry of Bengali origin chose to register themselves as Assamese speakers in every census since Independence, so that they could assimilate into the local milieu. The Assamese caste-Hindus co-opted them into their fold as ‘Na-Asamiyas’ or neo-Assamese, if only to ensure that Assamese speakers remained the largest linguistic group in the state. Constantly haunted by the perceived domination of the Bengali speakers, it was important for the Assamese caste elite to retain the numerical preponderance of Assamese speakers in the state, since linguistic predominance provided the basis for ethnic hegemony. If Bengali speakers outnumbered Assamese speakers, they reckoned, the ‘Assameseness’ of Assam would be diluted. Since both the Bengali Hindus throughout Assam and the Bengali-speaking Muslims in the Barak valley were determined to push their language as an option parallel to Assamese, it was important for the Assamese-caste elite to win over the Muslim migrants of Bengali origin settling in the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra valley.

With the support of the ‘Na-Asamiyas’, Assamese remained the major language in Assam and the caste elite sought to impose it on the Bengali-dominated Barak valley, leading to the language agitations in post-colonial Assam. Every year in the Barak valley and elsewhere in Assam, Bengalis observe 19 May as their Language Martyrs Day in the memory of those who were killed in confrontations with the police on that date in 1960, much like 21 February is observed in Bangladesh as the beginning of the language movement that finally led to the breakup of Pakistan. In recent years, 19 May celebrations in Silchar have been graced by the visit of leading poets, writers and singers from both West Bengal and Bangladesh. The Muslims of Bengali origin in the Brahmaputra valley, however, have largely stayed away from these celebrations to emphasize their linguistic preferences and have rather used their religious identity as the defining point of ‘we’ and ‘others’. Physical security and fear of eviction from the land they own are the obvious priorities for the Muslim peasant migrants from the erstwhile Eastern Bengal who settled in the Brahmaputra valley. Unlike their brethren in Bangladesh and West Bengal, Tripura and the Barak valley, their passion for the Bengali language has been limited to the occasional folk song choirs in the char areas (river islands) during the harvest season. Only after these Muslims were specifically targeted by the Assamese militant student and youth groups during the bloody riots of 1982-83, did some of them register as Bengali speakers during the census in what was seen as a return to roots. This led to a fall in the number of Assamese speakers in the last two censuses of 1991 and 2001.

In recent years, the question of illegal migration from Bangladesh has overshadowed other political issues in Assam. This, along with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has ensured that the linguistic mobilisation of the 1960s has been replaced by the politics of religious fundamentalism. Bengali Hindus in large numbers throughout Assam have started supporting the BJP and Assamese Hindus have joined them because they feel regional parties like the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) cannot deliver on their promise of deporting illegal migrants (read: Muslim migrants). The AGP-BJP political alliance in the 2001 state assembly elections, engineered by the state’s governor, Lieutenant-General S. K. Sinha (retired), marked the high point of this new trend; that it prompted a backlash from the Muslims urging them to group together in a and vote Congress to victory.

With north Indian migrant communities like the Biharis and the Marwaris supporting the BJP in ever-increasing numbers, the process of religious consolidation has begun to affect the politics of Assam more significantly than ever before. After all, Assam has the second highest percentage of Muslim population among Indian states after Kashmir and the impact of global and national realities on Assam’s politics cannot be wished away. This has weakened the support base of Assamese separatism because the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) operates from its bases in Bangladesh and its soft stand on the migration issue has not gone down well with Assamese upper-caste Hindus. The ULFA is opposed to the politics of religious fundamentalism, but when it went to the extent of supporting the ‘Kashmiri freedom struggle’ during the Kargil War, the Assamese saw in it a not-so-subtle attempt to please the ULFA’s main external sponsors.

Changing Trends in Migration

In the pre-British era, the population flow into what is now Northeast India originated almost entirely in the east. Closer to the highlands of Burma and southwestern China than to the power centres of the Indian heartland, this region was exposed to a constant flow of tribes and nationalities belonging to the Tibeto-Burman or the Mon-Khmer stock, one settling down only to be overrun by the subsequent wave. The direction of population flow changed with the advent of the British. The colonial masters brought peasants and agricultural labourers, teachers and clerks from neighbouring Bengal and Bihar to open up Assam’s economy. The trickle became a tide, soon to extend to Tripura, where the Manikya kings offered Bengali farmers ‘jungle-avadi’ or forest clearance leases. The move was intended to popularise settled agriculture in a largely hill state and improve the state’s land revenues. The hill regions were protected by the Inner Line Regulations, whereas the plains and the princely domains were not. 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.

Partition led to a rise in the flow of refugees and migrants from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Tripura’s demography changed within two decades as Bengalis became a clear majority. The pace of demographic change was slightly slower in Assam than in Tripura but it was pronounced enough to upset the ‘sons of the soil’, provoking both armed and non-violent mass protest movements and sometimes a mix of both. The fear that, like Tripura, the other northeastern states could be swamped by influx of outsiders has weighed heavily on indigenous peoples and early settlers throughout the Northeast and provoked the more militant among them to take up arms.

A tradition of armed resistance to invaders had developed in the region even before the arrival of the British. The Ahoms, who ruled Assam for several centuries, fought back the invading Mughals. The Manikya kings of Tripura not only fought the Bengal Sultans back from their hill region but also managed to conquer parts of eastern Bengal at various times in history. The Burmese were the only ones who overran Assam and Manipur, only to be ousted through the help of the British within a few years. When the British ventured into the Northeast, they encountered fierce resistance in the Naga and the Mizo (then Lushai) Hills regions, in Manipur and in what is now Meghalaya. The Naga and the Mizo tribesmen resorted to guerrilla war, holding up much stronger British forces by grit and ingenuous use of the terrain.  As a result of the fighting, there were parts of the Mizo Hills where entire villages were ‘populated only by widows’.

After the departure of the British, the Indian nation-state faced uprisings in Tripura almost immediately after Independence and in the Naga hills since the mid-1950s. The communists, who led the tribal uprising in Tripura, called off armed struggle in the early 1950s and joined Indian-style electoral politics. Since the 1980 ethnic riots, Tripura has witnessed periodic bouts of tribal militancy, with the Bengali refugee population its main target. The Naga uprising, the strongest ethnic insurrection in Northeast India, has been weakened by repeated splits along tribal lines. Talks between the Indian government and the stronger faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), which were started in 1997, are continuing, but a possible resumption of Naga insurgency remains a preoccupying possibility in the Northeast.

Armed uprisings erupted in the Mizo hills following a famine in 1966. A year later, guerrilla bands became active in Manipur and Tripura. Since most of these rebel groups found safe bases, weapons and training in the former East Pakistan, the defeat of the Pakistani armed forces in 1971 adversely affected the rebels from the Northeast. For nearly seven years, they were deprived of a major staging post in a contiguous foreign nation. China, which trained and armed several groups of Naga, Mizo and Meitei rebels since 1966, stopped aiding them in the early 1980s. By then, however, Bangladesh’s military rulers had assumed power after the coup of 1975, in which the country’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, was killed. They promptly revived the Pakistani policy of sheltering, arming and training rebel groups from Northeast India. This policy, initiated by General Zia-ur-Rehman, has been continued by his wife’s government more than twenty-five years later.

Fishing in Troubled waters

Almost all the separatist groups in the Northeast — Nagas, Mizos, Meiteis, Tripuris and now those from Meghalaya — have subsequently received shelter and support in Bangladesh. On the other hand, Indian agencies used the Northeast to arm and train, support and shelter the Bengali guerrillas against Pakistan in 1971 and then the tribal insurgents from the Chittagong Hill Tracts against Bangladesh.  For a brief while in the early 1990s, the Indian external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), supported the Kachin Independence Army of Burma with weapons and ammunition.

Since the 1980s, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has also used Bangladesh to prop up some of the rebel groups from northeast India. A few of them have received weapons, specialised training in explosives and sabotage and even funds. Surrendered insurgents have reported that the ISI encouraged them to strike economic targets like oil refineries and depots, gas pipelines, rail tracks and road bridges.  Burma and Bhutan have also been used as sanctuaries by some of these rebel groups but there is little evidence of official patronage from the governments of those countries. There are some unconfirmed reports of Chinese assistance to the NSCN, the Meitei rebel groups and the ULFA.

By the early 1980s, the entire region was gripped by large-scale violence. There were fierce riots in Tripura and Assam. Separatist movements intensified in Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur, later spreading to both Assam and Tripura. India’s young Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, took the initiative to arrive at settlements with the militant students of Assam, the separatist Mizo National Front and the Tribal National Volunteers of Tripura. Other insurgencies continued, however, and new ones emerged. Whereas earlier separatist movements, such as that of the Nagas and the Mizos, had challenged federal authority, the recent insurgencies of the Bodos, the Hmars, the Karbis and the Dimasas directly confront the regional power centres — the new states of the Northeast.

Although the Nagas and the Mizos fought for a separate country and finally settled for a separate state within India, the smaller ethnicities like the Bodos and the Hmars fight for autonomous homelands that they wish to carve out of states like Assam and Mizoram. The failure to achieve separate states radicalized the movements and made them turn to secessionist rhetoric. Territorial demands based on ethnicity in northeast India are very often sustained by historical memories of separate tribal kingdoms. The Bodos or the Dimasas fondly recall their pre-Ahom kingdoms, when they controlled large territories. The Tripuris and the Manipuris look back at the long rule of their princely families to justify secession. A democratic dispensation like India’s provides even the smallest of these groups scope to raise their homeland demand and since Delhi has conceded many of them, these ethnic groups have reason to feel they can obtain what they want with a little more persuasion or pressure, violence or manipulation.

Very often in the Northeast, a negotiated settlement with a separatist movement has opened the ethnic fissures within it. The Hmars, the Maras and the Lais fought shoulder to shoulder with the Lushais against the Indian security forces during the twenty years of insurgency led by the Mizo National Front (MNF). But twenty years of bonding through the shared experience of guerrilla warfare failed to develop a greater ‘Mizo’ identity. As the common enemy, India, receded into the distance, Delhi came to be seen as a source of protection and the last line of justice by the smaller tribes and ethnicities. Now, the Hmars and the Reangs want an autonomous district council for themselves, like the Lais, the Maras and the Chakmas already enjoy. Both tribes have militant groups (the Hmar Peoples Convention and the Bru National Liberation Front) who attack Mizoram police and politicians, provoking fierce reactions from groups such as the Young Mizo Association.

The Bodos, the Karbis, the Dimasas and the Rabhas all joined the Assam movement to expel ‘foreigners’ and ‘infiltrators’. But after the 1985 accord signed by the Assam agitation groups with the Indian government, these groups felt the Assamese ‘had taken the cake and left us the crumbs’.  The result: fresh agitations, often sliding into violent insurgencies, spearheaded by smaller ethnicities demanding separate homelands. Within two years of the 1985 accord, the Bodos were on the warpath with a new slogan: ‘divide Assam fifty-fifty’. Militant Bodo groups took the road of armed rebellion and terrorism, blowing up bridges, trains and buses, attacking troops and policemen, politicians and non-Bodo ethnic groups. Despite a settlement with the Indian government in early 2003 that promised to establish a Bodoland Territorial Council, some groups like the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) say they are determined to continue their armed movement. Militant groups representing the Karbis and the Dimasas have also surfaced, promoting ethnic cleansing as the core of their political strategy to establish numerical domination over proposed and perceived homelands.

The Pitfalls of Identity Politics

The ethnic imbal!nce in power-sharing has often caused re-tribalization which, in turn, has limited the growth of local nationalisms that could challenge the Indian state. After fighting India for forty years, Naga nationalism remains an incomplete process, its growth retarded by at least three major splits within the separatist movement, mostly along tribal lines. Even a China-trained leader like Muivah, a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur, has no hesitation branding Angamis as ‘reactionary traitors’ and his own tribe, the Tangkhuls (who form the bulk of the NSCN), as ‘revolutionary patriots’. On the other hand, the Tangkhuls are seen in Nagaland as ‘Kaccha Nagas’ (impure Nagas). Only when an emotive issue like ‘Greater Nagaland’ surfaces, pitting the Nagas against the Meiteis or the Assamese, do the conflicts within the Naga identity evaporate for a while, only to surface at a later stage.

The Naga National Council, once the strongest ethnic rebel organization in India’s Northeast, was weakened not as much by Indian counter-insurgency operations as by the tribal splits that Delhi was quick to exploit. In the 1960s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi exploited the growing schism between the Semas and the Angamis, two of the most dominant Naga tribes that provided the bulk of the fighting force in the Naga Army. Indian intelligence weaned the Semas away from the movement, with the help of some loyalists like Hokishe Sema. The Revolutionary Government of Nagaland (RGN), which was formed by the Sema rebels of the Naga National Council, worked in tandem with the Indian administration and the army throughout the late 1960s. When ‘General’ Mowu Angami returned home in 1969 at the head of the second wave of China-trained Naga rebels, he walked into a trap set by the RGN and the Indian army near the border town of Kiphire. The Semas handed Mowu over to the Indian troops along with the fighters he was leading.
This was the first major split in the Naga movement.

The second split, which also had a tribal dimension to it, occurred around the 1975 Shillong Accord. The Angamis and the major Naga tribes of Nagaland largely went with the Accord and came into Indian-style ballot-box politics to lay claim to a share of political power and economic bounty, while the smaller and relatively fringe Naga tribes like the Tangkhuls in Manipur and the Konyaks of the Mon-Tuensang area remained in the jungles, along with the Hemi Nagas of Burma, to form the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). But the NSCN itself was split in 1988 with the Konyaks and the Hemis breaking away from the Tangkhuls and the ‘Nagaland Nagas’. The NSCN’s Issac-Muivah faction, largely run by the Tangkhuls, fraternalized the Semas to take control over Dimapur, Nagaland’s commercial hub, and that has helped them to raise huge funds by taxing the trade. It has been argued that if the Naga National Council had stood firmly united, it might have secured a better settlement from the Indian government in the 1960s than what the NSCN can obtain now.

The trend has been no different in Mizoram or Manipur. The Kuki demand for a separate homeland that has pitted them against the Nagas has driven some smaller clans away and led to the emergence of a separate Zomi identity. The Hmars, Lais and the Maras have joined the Chakmas and the Reangs to challenge the Mizos. In Manipur, the Meitei identity has been reinforced through the rich Manipuri language and culture, but the Meitei refuse to recognize the Bishnupriyas as Manipuris. When the leftist government in Tripura recognized the Bishnupriya’s right to primary education in their own mother tongue, the Meiteis in Tripura and Manipur came out in the streets to protest against it.

In Tripura, the Mizos in the northern Jampui hills demand a regional council within the Tribal Areas Autonomous Council of Tripura to preserve their ‘distinct identity’, whereas their ethnic kinsmen in Mizoram are wary of similar demands by smaller ethnicities. The Reangs in Tripura resent attempts by the Tripuris to impose the Kokborok language on them. And they look back at the brutal suppression of Reang rebellions by the Tripuri kings as ‘evidence of ethnic domination that cannot be accepted anymore.’  The tensions within the tribes, as much caused by the oral and written traditions of conflict between them as by contemporary tussles for power and influence, have weakened efforts to promote a compact ‘Borok’ or tribal identity against perceived Bengali domination. At times, several tribes sharing the same religion have tried to promote a common identity on this basis, albeit with little success. The separatist National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) has tried aggressively to promote the Borok identity reinforced by Christianity, taking a cue from the Mizo and Naga rebel groups. The animist Reangs and the Vaishnavite Jamatias, however, resent imposition of the Borok identity and many of them have broken away from the NLFT.

Once India carved out the state of Nagaland in 1963, Assam’s role as a sub-regional hegemon was threatened and its position as India’s political sub-contractor in the northeast was destined to end. Within a decade of the creation of Nagaland, Delhi effected a political reorganisation of the whole region, through which three new administrative units were formed. All these three became full-fledged states in the 1980s, as India desperately sought to control violent ethnic insurgencies in the area. On the other hand, the breakup of Assam not only produced fresh demands for ethnic homelands within what has remained of it, but also drove a section of the ethnic Assamese to insurgency. With the hills gone, the Assamese turned to his valleys to find he was fast becoming a minority there. The anti-foreigner movement rocked Assam between 1979 and 1985 and led to large-scale, free-for-all ethnic riots. The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), now the leading separatist organisation in Assam, was born out of that movement. Its initial credo was ethnic cleansing — it sought by the force of arms to drive the ‘foreigners’ (mostly migrants from Bangladesh) out of Assam.

Over a period of time, however, the ULFA’s politics has changed. Sheltered in Bangladesh, Burma and Bhutan, and having to face the military might of the Indian state, the ULFA has denounced the Assam movement as ‘one that was led by juveniles, who failed to understand that migration per se was not bad and had helped many countries like the USA to become what they are today’. The ULFA claims that Bengalis — Hindus and Muslims alike — have ‘immensely contributed to Assam’ and that ‘those of them who feel themselves as part of Assam should be treated as its legitimate dwellers’.  It is difficult to ascertain how much of this policy shift on the part of the ULFA — projecting itself as the representative of the ‘Asombashis’ (dwellers of Assam) rather than the ‘Asomiyas’ or ethnic Assamese — stems from tactical considerations, such as finding shelter in Bangladesh and gaining the support of Assam’s large Bengali population, and how much of it is a genuine attempt to rise above the ethnic considerations to forge a secular, multi-ethnic identity. But once the ULFA got thrown out of Bangladesh by the Sheikh Hasina government, ULFA military wing chief Paresh Barua has started making critical references to Bengalis and chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa has now demanded from Delhi “concrete measures to protect the indigenous peoples and preserve their culture”.

The ULFA is only being pragmatic in trying to project territory and a multi-ethnic credo as the basis for a future independent Assam. It is merely acknowledging the polyglot nature of the state of Assam and of the rest of the region. Despite its racial difference from the Indian heartland, the Northeast is an ethnic mosaic, which is ironically reminiscent of India’s own multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-ethnic polity. The ULFA seeks to restore the multi-ethnic and assimilative nature of the Assamese nationality formation process that was disrupted by racial-linguistic chauvinism on the part of the upper-caste Assamese elites in the 1960s, as a result of which tribe after tribe elected to abandon Assam, fuelling demands for an ever-increasing number of ethnicity-based states in the Northeast. Significantly, though the ULFA targeted Hindi-speaking populations for large-scale attacks after 1999, it has avoided any attack on Bengalis, Nepalis or tribal groups that it regards as potential allies in the struggle against ‘Indian colonialism’. Indeed, Hindi-speakers have been seen as ‘Indian populations supportive of the colonial rule’.

The ULFA’s growing lack of faith in ethnicity as the basis for its political militancy stems from a realization that there could be no ‘pure ethnic homeland’ in Assam or anywhere else in northeast India. A broad-based Assamese nationalism, unless it caters to the distinct ethnic aspirations of the tribes and other communities in Assam, is a non-starter. The ULFA therefore, shrewdly enough, projects a future independent Assam as a federal Assam, where Bodo, Karbi, Dimasa, Rabha, Lalung or Mishing, or even Bengali homelands can coexist, so long as the ‘basic values of Assamese society and culture are accepted’.  According to a security adviser to the Assam government, this is ‘a clever ploy to broaden the support base of the ULFA insurgency against India.’  But Assam’s political leadership now speak the same language, of the need to accept the polyglot character of Assam, of satisfying the aspirations of the ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities, if only to stave off another breakup of the state. It is time that others in the region realize the limitations of ethnicity as a viable basis for politics and social organisation in the Northeast. The ULFA claims that, in the Northeast, ethnicity has ‘promoted more divisions within the revolutionary struggles and provided India’s ruling classes with more and more opportunity to crush them’. Other nationality struggles need to realise that over emphasis on ethnicity may narrow the political base of the movement and offer Delhi the opportunity to divide and rule in an ethnically fragmented political and territorial space. And rebel groups grown on ethnicity may also fail to strike a long term understanding despite their efforts to create a united front in the jungles of Burma, as has indeed been reported by our paper.

Indeed, though ethnicity has been the mainstay of the region’s separatist movements and often has formed the basis for creation of political-administrative units there, its self-corrosive properties have restricted the growth of local nationalisms strong enough to confront Delhi. It can create a Lebanon or a Bosnia out of Northeast India but never a Bangladesh or an East Timor capable of breaking away from the larger post-colonial nation-state. All the states in the Northeast, most of which were created on the basis of ethnic distinctiveness, have failed to resolve their ethnic issues, thus demonstrating the illusionary nature of the notion of a ‘pure ethnic homeland’.

Hard Choices Ahead

India’s powerful regional diplomacy in recent years, that forced Bhutan and Bangladesh to act against its rebel groups of Northeast India, is now focussed on getting Burma’s new government to act against the rebel bases in the Sagaing-Kachin region, which is surely the last big sanctuary of the Northeastern rebel groups. It is too early to say whether the Burmese will act, though it is for sure that after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Burma, the pressure will rise manifold. The choice before the rebel groups is therefore clear. They have three options — joining a dialogue with India, seeking and getting Chinese support and sanctuary, or returning to fight within their own state like the Maoists do and risk military and political annihilation. For the last captains of the Northeastern rebellions, there is not much time before they have to make a difficult choice.


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