Alienation and Exclusion in the Northeast


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:
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
Militarist counterinsurgency
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
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.