Dialogue  April-June, 2006, Volume 7  No. 4

North-East India : Causes of Unrest

Toki Blah


If the truth be stated then we must accept the fact that discontentment and unrest have become synonymous with this part of India so whimsically known as the North East. This unrest however is not the result of any single cause or incident. Instead it is the byproduct of so many causes through a protracted period of time, the most important being that of ignorance, neglect, economic backwardness and not least, mal-governance at its worst. The following is an attempt to identify and analyse, as briefly as possible, the numerous aspects of the causes of this unrest. The ultimate objective of such an exercise is to create an awareness on the causes of this socio-political turbulence. Such awareness will hopefully stimulate a thought process aimed at finding solutions to such causes. But this is putting the cart before the horse. Let us therefore, initially concentrate on the causes of unrest and the manner in which this unrest manifests itself.

Causes of unrest:


Ignorance of the region and ignorance within the region constitute one of the reasons for the state of continued unrest that prevails within the boundaries of the Seven Sister States. Geographic and Historic reasons are mainly responsible for the lack of social and cultural interaction between the people of this region with the rest of the country and contributes largely towards ignorance of the region. We don’t know them and they don’t know us. A Saying goes “ We hate people because we don’t know them ; and we don’t know them because we hate them”. ( Its so appropriate for the NE that I just couldn’t resist quoting it) A vicious psychological cycle. Our ignorance of outsiders begets suspicion . This suspicion in turn often gives rise to mistrust and fear . Fear, in the ultimate analysis, is the main ingredient of Social Unrest! If we claim however that we are ignorant of our Indian brethren the same goes for them too. Mainland India is totally in the woods as far as the Seven Sister States and their people are concerned. In all fairness who has the time and energy to understand the local politics, aspirations, dreams and apprehensions of individual tribes from a potpourri of more than 200 different tribes from the region ? This aspect is responsible for ignorance of the Region. For convenience sake New Delhi opted on a common nomenclature for the entire region and prefers to call it “ The North East ”. With the passage of time this word has conjured up, within the corridors of power in Delhi, a false but comfortable perception and vision of a composite political area populated by a homogenous NE Community . Social, Political and Economic issues have therefore been perceived and accordingly addressed within the parameters of this Mainland perception of the region. Nothing can be further from the truth and this fallacy has been one of the most contributive factors for the continued rancor; persistent mistrust and enduring communication gap between the people of the region and the so called outsiders from rest of India! They don’t understand us and we resent this failure! This resentment in turn manifests itself in many forms, the most common of which is violence. Ignorance of each other therefore contributes in no small manner towards the suspicion and misunderstanding that continuously dog the State-Center relations between New Delhi and the Seven Sister States.

Most people summarily reject the concept that unrest in the NE is also the byproduct of a time warp in which the people of the region find themselves in. But there may be more to this theory than we are willing to accept. Within a short span of less than five generations the people of the region have been transported from stone-age cave dwellers to high rise apartment dwellers; from primitive warrior headhunters to seat bound office commuters; from simple village headmen to computer punching administrators and jetsetting political executives. If Alvin Toffler is to be believed, NE in 1947 was in the first stage of First Wave Civilisation. It practiced and survived on a primitive form of Agriculturist Economy, slash and burn to be exact, which continue even till today. Then within the last ten years we leap frogged simultaneously into the 21st Century and into Third Wave Economic pressures , where information and knowledge; computers and digital technology are the base ingredients for economic survival. Even advanced nations and communities are finding the demands of the Information age traumatic. For the NE region the pressure to adapt has become humanly unbearable. We have been asked to adjust to momentous changes within an unrealistic time frame. Is it therefore surprising to find domestic tension amidst social trauma, heightened by confusion, doubt and mistrust? We ourselves don’t know who we are or where we are heading. Ignorance among ourselves and within the region !


People of the NE, irrespective of the social rung they belong to, love to muse over a regional paradox. We love to expound over the existence of poverty in a land of plenty. The NE has rich Natural Resources yet boasts of the lowest per capita in the country. A number of reasons have oft been cited for this anomaly but all explanations have failed to impress the general masses. One reason however finds acceptance and there is widespread belief that irrespective of the Govt in the Center, New Delhi is usually prone towards a step-motherly attitude as far as the seven sister states are concerned. True or false, Central neglect is often cited as the main cause for our economic backwardness. Belief in the Neglect Syndrome is popular and widespread throughout the NE .

There is cause for such a belief however much we may dislike the idea. The Seven Sister States vis a vis other states of the union are politically marginalised in so far as political representation to Parliament is concerned. Politically we don’t count and as such in a politically oriented Central Administration , when shove comes to push, the voice of the NE is seldom heard if at all paid heed to. Again, assertiveness has never been a strong point with NE politicians and in the process Political marginalisation has perpetuated the feeling of neglect. Administrative steps to rectify this perception have been taken and cognizance is to be given to the creation of the North Eastern Council, its recent attempts at reorganization so as to appear more ethnically oriented and the concurrent creation of a separate Union Ministry known as the Department on Development of the North East (DONER) with a local North Easterner as its Minister, are definite and well meaning steps to erase the impression of Central nonchalance towards the region. The fact however remains that the taste of the pudding is in the eating. This has yet to take place and people have yet to savor the culinary skills of DONER and the restructured NEC.

One of the lapses in Development Planning for the NE can be attributed to a general failure to recognize the imperatives that impinge upon the land and the region. This part of the country is mostly made up of mountains and uplands. The Socio-economic issues of such an environment are usually dictated by what can only be called Mountain Imperatives – terrain, climate, remoteness, inaccessibility, isolation, cultural and indigenous uniqueness etc. On the other hand the Central Govt through the Planning Commission, till quite recently, was definitely lacking in experts, technologies and strategies to tackle such inherent problems for mountain areas. For instance, the agricultural production systems of this fragile high altitude environment are yet to be fully appreciated and understood. They differ radically from that of the fertile Indo Gangetic plains. Now tested and proven technology for agricultural enhancement for the plains, the so called Green Revolution Technology, has been juxtaposed on the agriculture practice of the hills- with catastrophic results. Failure, through wrong technology application has been attributed to inherent NE slothfulness! This hurts and deepens the feeling of cultural alienation.

The time has come when one must give cognizance to a fact that is politically unpalatable and that is – the NE and its people still remain an enigma to the rest of India ! This in turn has resulted in a Mainland mindset that has caused the most damage to the Socio Economic ethos of the region. Mainland bafflement has resulted in a fatalistic belief that if enough money is pumped into the NE , the region will take care of its own problems. Conversely for the NE , the centre is increasingly being seen as a confused but non the less concerned political entity that can be bullied into providing perpetual grants and subsidies. The more unruly and boisterous , the better the goodies from Delhi. Unprincipled political expediency has not been slow to take advantage of the situation resulting in glaring instances of nepotism and corruption. The acquisition of ill gotten wealth is often the bye product of mal-governance; materialism and self interest amply aided by shortsighted political leadership. NE Egalitarian societies have been divided into haves and have nots and from the view point of the have nots the neglect theory is totally justified and valid.

Economic Backwardness

It is commonly believed and it is a fact, that Historical and Geographical factors are responsible for the region’s economic backwardness. Few however recognize, and even less are prepared to acknowledge, the perverted role the politics and politicians of the NE have in its quest for growth. The concept of a Social Welfare State remains strong in the NE psyche and the Govt and its politicians are looked at as the patron saints for the economic growth and economic transformation of the region and its people. It is a belief actively but fraudulently fostered by politicians and as readily and gullibly upheld by the hoi poloi. Unfortunately it is a conviction whose shallowness has been exposed time and again. It is now clear that the leaders themselves are as ignorant as the next man on issues, policies, strategies, and trends that could influence economic growth. It is a classic case of the sightless leading the blind where neither the leaders nor the followers actually know how or what economic goals to pursue. No other factor portrays NE simplicity more than our misplaced faith in the economic expertise of our political leaders.

For more than fifty years respective states of the NE continued to be led up the Economic Garden path. Political considerations instead of economic objectives continued to be the motivating factors for NE development. No wonder development stagnated and in the process this flawed perception and approach has not only hindered growth but it has also brought in an ever deepening sense of frustration and despair , especially among the educated youth of the NE. Desperation soon gave way to an anti-establishment stance which quickly degenerated into militancy and violence. In this context, it is not difficult to understand a NE youngsters belief that only the gun can change his fortunes! Policy makers and development planners of the region shall perhaps have to burn midnight oil to come up with viable and sustainable proposals to address the sense of economic marginalisation that permeates the region. Indulging in political blame games however still continues unabated. The usual cavalier and nonchalant belief and practice that things will take care of themselves as long as New Delhi continues with the subsidy gravy train still retains a sizable political fan club .

A new dimension however has now emerged . India has decided on a Look East Policy – to connect with its Eastern Neighbours through the NE. Are NE states, Governments and its people ready for this paradigm change? A regional SWOT analysis may perhaps help in prioritizing areas that require attention . Institutions of the NE that require individual and collective SWOT analysis can broadly be identified as NEC, DONER, Traditional Institutions ( maybe as platforms for a participatory bottoms-up approach to economic development), Political Parties and even the so called NE militancy movement. Such a move may perhaps help the people of the region see the whole wood instead of the individual trees we are currently focusing on. It may perhaps help us develop a holistic perspective on NE development which notwithstanding the existence of the Look East Policy, the North Eastern Council, DONER, Individual States and the concerted and laudable efforts to come up with a 2020 vision for the region, the fact remains that the economic development of the region demands that it be approached from a realistic and practical economic paradigm, written by economists and planners rather than the conventional dependence on a now suspect bureaucrat -politician combine.


Mainland India and its people carry an image of the NE where they think that an all pervading fear of constant and unseen death , injury or harm envelops the region. We know this is false, and though occasional localized tension may occur, for most times all of us continue to live a life of trust and camaraderie among ourselves. Fear over loss of identity is on the other hand a constant and ever present threat for the people of the NE. This fear, real or imagined , usually arises out of the perceived unchecked influx of outsiders in some states and due to the economic superiority of outsiders in some other states. Be where it may occur, this fear is one of the most pertinent factors that contribute to the state of unrest in the Seven Sister States and where logic and common sense are constantly upstaged by raw and coarse emotion. The democratic ethos of the NE is often put to the test when one is forced to choose between rights of the Individual over rights of one’s Community and often one opts for the latter. Fear of social ostracism overwhelms even the educated and in the NE they prefer to remain the silent spectators. The horror of a demographic imbalance detrimental to the interest of the indigenous tribal population is a powerful silencing factor for the region’s intelligentsia. Solutions to this fear must therefore be found immediately if the integrity of the country is to be protected. The Indian Constitution with its inherent flexible characteristics may surprisingly be the most appropriate place to start looking for such answers.


Governance or to be more specific the lack of it forms one of the most prominent yet despicable characteristics of NE administration. After all is said and done in relation to the identification of causes of unrest in the NE , prolonged and sustained Mal Governance over the entire region may well be identified as the most contributive to NE violence yet most difficult to set right. This difficulty may in turn arise out of our unwillingness to indulge in serious introspection of our faults and misendeavours . In a democratic set up, “Bad or Mal-governance” has always been associated with

(a) governance sans a definite purpose.

(b) governance sans Principles and Values.

A closer look at the general pattern of Governance in the entire NE ever since independence shows that the above characteristics of mal-administration have more or less been prevailing in almost all NE states. Politics has been actively cultivated and relentlessly pursued for the sake of attaining political power alone – and nothing else beyond that! Unfortunately this has been accepted as the sole purpose of politics and attainment of political power identified as an end in itself. Achieving this end by any means fair or foul has become acceptable for the so called Political elite. The mantra of political power justifies all actions. At the other end of the spectrum are those who survive beyond the pale of Power Politics. For such as these another form of politics exist in the governance of their day to day lives at the village level- and these form more than 80% of the population of the NE. For them traditional, value based governance still applies and is still practiced. Thus we find a totally confused community boxed in between Power Centered Politics versus Value Based Politics. This situation has played havoc with the cultural and traditional value system of the NE communities. We have entered the 21st century but in our heart of hearts we have yet to adjust to the conflicting choices between modern politics and traditional governance. Power as an end or principles as the means. We have yet to decide which. The day we do so, maybe the day we can also expect better governance from our leaders.

There is urgent need therefore to refocus and reorient the direction of the political process of the region. A political vision that strives for the betterment of the larger public rather than the betterment of a pampered elite should emerge. Politics as a vocation, as a service to mankind should be reintroduced and should be revived. The present existing concept of politics as an entry point to riches should be discouraged. A possible answer to the problem may lie in our ability to blend in the fragrance of traditional consensus politics with the stimulant of modern day power politics. The possibility of creating such an exciting brew does positively exist !


In conclusion, there maybe those who had expected mention of the “Foreign Hand” as one of the causes for NE unrest. At best this particular cause was the invention of a befuddled security establishment that was hard put to explain the continuous eruption of insurgency and violence in the region. At its worst this aspect cannot be termed as a cause but maybe as an abetment to an already existing turmoil. Yet after alls said and done, it cannot be underscored , that solutions to the varied problems in which the NE finds itself today lie within the region itself. They cannot be imported from outside. Outsiders cannot offer any viable answers to our internal problems. We have to come up with answers that now lie dormant within ourselves. Rediscovering ourselves perhaps not as legends of the past but as people of the future; learning from the past but transcending its historical boundaries to survive for the future ; rediscovering discarded traditional principles and values as material for future tribal social re-engineering . We can try reestablishing that bonding process between this generation and the next. Rediscovering mutual trust and confidence in ourselves will definitely be the first prerequisite towards nullifying the anti establishment mood which is such a prime factor for unrest in the Seven Sister States.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati