Dialogue  October-December, 2009 , Volume 11 No. 2


India’s Northeast: Ethnic Aspirations, Violent Tactics


Wasbir Hussain*


Every nation in the world has a region to its north or the east, or for that matter, to its north-east. In India though, the word ‘North-east’ is being used to describe a particular region, a vast swathe covering more than 2.50 lakh square kilometers with a population of 39 million. That is fine. What is worrisome, however, is the stereotyping of the geographical, linguistic and ethnic identities of eight totally distinct states located in the country’s north-east. Most people in mainland India have the tendency to generalize the geographical identity of the region and bracket it as the ‘North-east’. The casualty of such a generalization is the varied linguistic and ethnic identities (the region has around 160 Scheduled Tribes, besides an estimated 400 other tribal or sub-tribal communities and groups) in the area. Ethnic identity is dear to most communities in the region, reason enough for them to engage in turf wars, that are, more often than not, bloody. Anyone trying to zero in on some of the major trigger factors for insurgencies in the area need also to factor in the strong ethnic aspirations or sub-nationalism among its people.

   The lack of opportunities in the region, which ironically is rich in natural resources, from tea to oil and forest wealth has led to agitations by students organizations or ethnic groups for concessions from the government, or, to armed movements by the insurgents against the State as such. In the absence of industries, the youths look to the government for jobs. Now that government jobs have reached a saturation point, politics — irrespective of whether it is electoral politics, student politics or insurgent politics — has become the most sought-after profession for young and old alike in the region. The result is a lack of space for these players and more clashes of interest.

     The strategic location of the region is a major cause for concern. The North-east of India shares a 4,500 km-long international border with the four South Asian neighbours, but is connected to the Indian mainland by a tenuous 22 km-long land corridor passing through Siliguri in the eastern state of West Bengal, fancifully described as the ‘Chicken’s Neck.’ India’s longest running insurgency is located here – spearheaded by the Naga tribal separatists who have been clamouring for an independent homeland ever since India attained independence from the British in 1947. Four states of the Northeast, Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura, witness scales of conflict that can be categorized as low intensity wars (conflicts in which fatalities are over 100 but less than 1000 per annum). The northeastern region has witnessed 12,175 fatalities between 1992 and 2002.

      People in the area are caught in the crossfire between insurgents or other non-state actors and government forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations. Take the case of Assam: for close to two decades, the Army, Police and the Paramilitaries have been engaged in counter-insurgency operations under a joint command of multiple forces, called the ‘Unified Headquarters’. Despite this sustained and supposedly coordinated counter-insurgency offensive, the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom), counted among the frontline rebel armies of the region, has managed to carry on with its insurrection, changing its strike tactics, trying to find newer havens to locate its cadres, and continuing to surprise security agencies. The outfit has been lying low for sometime, ever since two ‘companies’ of its main strike unit, the ‘28th battalion’, had entered into a ceasefire with the government in June 2008. But, the ULFA’s separatist dreams and its 30-year-old hope of achieving an independent homeland are still keeping the state on guard.  

    North-east India has been the birth place of more than a hundred militant groups so far. It is said that the militant groups in the region have not spared any English alphabet while finding a name for their organizations. Currently, there are at least 30 active armed insurgent organizations operating and fighting the Indian state to push demands ranging from secession to autonomy and right to self determination. Besides, there are a plethora of ethnic groups clamouring for their rights and distinct identity—at times not just fighting the Indian state but engaged in internecine turf wars. Thus, if the faction of the Naga guerrilla group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, headed by Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah (NSCN-IM) has been pushing ahead with its demand for an independent Naga homeland to be carved out of India, the Naga and the Kuki ethnic groups in the state of Manipur, or the Bodo and Santhal tribes people in western Assam, have had a history of bitter conflict to retain control of as much land as possible and thereby preserve their identity and rights.


Identity Phobia & Sub-Nationalism

     Triggered by the fear of losing their distinct identity and to further their sub-national aspirations, the insurgent groups are carrying out with essentially ethno-national movements. For instance, the movement for maximum autonomy by the Bodos, Assam’s largest plains tribal community, has succeeded in the group securing a new politico-administrative structure within the existing State of Assam following a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Government of India on 10 February, 2003. The Bodo-majority areas have now come under the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), a 40-member elective body that runs the day-to-day administration of the areas under it. The BTC is supposed to be undertaking developmental projects to improve the condition of the community and the areas in which they inhabit with funds allocated to it directly by the central government, besides funding from the State government. The BTC Accord is seen as a fulfillment of the sub-national aspirations of the Bodos, Assam’s largest plains tribal group.

     Similarly, the six-year-long anti-foreigner uprising spearheaded by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), the State’s apex student group, from 1979 to 1985, had been a movement triggered off by the fear within the indigenous Assamese community of being overwhelmed by the unabated influx of illegal Bangladeshi migrants from across the porous border. The anti-foreigner stir, among the biggest mass uprising in India since the country’s freedom struggle, ended with the signing of an agreement, popularly called the Assam Accord, between the central and state governments and the AASU on 15 August, 1985. The Accord fixed 25 March, 1971 (the day Bangladesh was born) as the cut-off date for detection and expulsion of the illegal foreign migrants from the State of Assam.

    While lack of economic development happened to be one of the major reasons for the rise of militancy in the region, militancy on the other hand has further retarded economic development in the region. For instance, the plan for industrial investment in the region between August 1991 to December 1994, under the post-liberalization Indian economy, was a mere Rs 2,224 crore, whereas in a single State like Maharashtra, the figure, during the corresponding period, stood at Rs 67,978 crore. Under the circumstances, it is natural to find the people of the region harbouring a great sense of alienation from the Indian mainstream and feel they are being neglected by this distant mainstream.

    This has resulted in the armed groups, as well as the unarmed ones, representing the region’s various ethnic groups and communities, often finding it rather easy to push ahead with their respective demands through either armed or non-violent forms of movements. To say it simply, these groups often have aggrieved constituencies to bank on to pursue their respective agenda. Another dimension to the problem in the region is that underground armed insurgent groups, overground socio-political groupings representing respective ethnic communities, and influential students’ outfits whose members are drawn from these communities often strive to achieve the same goal, that of protecting or pushing for the rights of the communities whose interests they seek to represent. Only the methods used are different.

       In Nagaland, the Nagas, who comprise about 17 major tribes and

more than 20 sub-tribes, have always considered themselves to belong to an independent nationality. “We are Nagas by birth, Indians by accident,” is a common refrain among the indigenous people in Nagaland. The more radical of them, the separatist rebels themselves or their die-hard supporters, would, of course, say that they are not Indians at all, and that they are only Nagas. Therefore, the Naga insurgent groups’ fight for independence does not surprise anybody.

      The Naga insurrection is as old as India’s independence, and along the way, during the past 62 years, there have been several attempts to narrow down the differences and work out an acceptable solution. None have succeeded. As such, when New Delhi and the NSCN-IM entered into a ceasefire agreement that came into effect on August 1, 1997, and began peace negotiations, watchers of Naga affairs were not too euphoric. But years of violence have made the common Naga people look towards a peaceful future. The mood in general among the Nagas, therefore, is one of peace. They would like to have both the Naga rebels and the Government of India see reason, relax their rigid postures and arrive at an acceptable solution through a give-and-take approach.


The Naga-Meitei Territorial Issue

    For most part of the peace dialogue during the past twelve years between the NSCN-IM and New Delhi, the issue of resolving the dispute over the jurisdiction of the ceasefire area has dominated the proceedings. The rebel leadership had been wanting the truce to be extended to all the Naga-inhabited areas outside Nagaland, and the Indian Government has been expressing its reluctance to do so. Finally, after shuttling between New Delhi, Bangkok and Amsterdam umpteen times since 1997, New Delhi’s peace envoy announced in Bangkok on 14 June, 2001—after a two-day meeting with the NSCN-IM headed by general secretary Muivah—that the ceasefire has been extended for one more year from August 1, 2001 onwards, and that henceforth the truce would have no ‘territorial limits.’ A joint statement issued in Bangkok, for instance, said the ceasefire agreement is between the “Government of India and the NSCN as two entities without territorial limits.”

    That triggered off the biggest-ever mass uprising by the majority Meiteis in adjoining Manipur’s Imphal Valley. Up to 50,000 Meiteis took to the streets in Imphal on 18 June, 2001—four days after the extension of the ceasefire limits outside Nagaland was announced—opposing the extension of the NSCN-Government truce to Manipur. Rampaging mob burnt the Manipur Legislative Assembly building and a dozen other government offices. Eighteen protestors were killed that day when security forces eventually opened fire to quell the frenzied mob. A massive civil disobedience movement followed and Imphal was under curfew for nearly a month. Finally on 24 July, after a meeting with the chief ministers of the northeastern states in New Delhi, then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee announced that the ceasefire would once again be restricted only to the state of Nagaland, as has been the case ever since the truce first came into force on 1 August, 1997.  That eased the situation in the Imphal Valley. The Meitei protest was triggered off by fears that extension of the ceasefire could well be the first step before parts of Manipur are sliced and merged into Nagaland as part of a possible deal with the NSCN-IM.

     Even before the cease-fire was extended without territorial limits, the All Manipur Students’ Union (AMSU) had submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister opposing such a move. The AMSU Secretary General, Premananda Yumnam, was categorical when he said “the Central government should know the sentiment of the Manipuris and if there was any move to extend the cease-fire to Manipur, the students’ body would launch a series of agitation against it.” This was perhaps treated not too seriously which led to an explosive situation later.

   The Meiteis had to bear the brunt of a perceived attack on their territorial integrity by the Union government’s decision to extend the jurisdiction of the cease-fire beyond Nagaland. This was seen by the Meiteis as a victory for the Nagas in obtaining a sort of legitimacy from New Delhi to further their ‘expansionist’ dream. Although a section of the Nagas in Manipur did hold out against the sweeping current towards a Naga homeland, in the end they proved to be only stray shots. The distrust towards the mainstream political parties in the State showed enough potential to turn into a general distrust towards mainstream Indian politics as a whole.

      During the unrest in Manipur, several Naga organisations did issue statements opposing the extension of the cease-fire to Manipur, describing it as an attempt to divide the people of the Hills and the Valley in the State. Two Naga organisations, the Kakhulong Youth Committee and Kakhulong Women’s Society in a joint statement said that the cease-fire was an attempt to drive a wedge between the people in the Hills and the Valley. Several other Naga organizations such as the Majorkhul Young Association, the Dimdimdajang Kabuikhul and the Khoupum Kabui Group issued separate statements saying that nobody could alter the relations between the plains and hill people in Manipur and demanded immediate withdrawal of cease-fire from the State. Hundreds of Nagas belonging to the Tangkhul community, to which NSCN-IM General Secretary Muivah belongs, joined the processions carrying placards with messages like ‘we oppose cease-fire extension to Manipur.’

Integrationist Policy Questionable

   Internal conflicts in India’s North-east are overwhelmingly conceptualized within the framework of unique ethnic identities that are threatened by, and in confrontation with, the nationalist state, which is often seen as a representative of an inchoate cultural ‘mainstream’. That is the primary reason why the Naga rebels, who certainly enjoy the backing of a sizeable section of the civilian population, are bent on unifying the Naga areas in the region under a single administrative set-up. Both in the Nagas’ dream of a unified existence and the Meitei resistance in Manipur over fears of having to lose territory to the Nagas, the question that has been uppermost behind such rigid postures by the two groups have been the preservation of their respective identities.

    New Delhi appears to have been convinced that an integrationist policy in holding the North-east together was after all not a correct approach in view of the diverse nature of the region’s demographic profile. This may have halted it from performing its role as a ‘homogenizing state’ any longer, and instead recognize the unique differences and distinct identities of the region’s ethnic groups and communities. It seems that it is this realization that is making the Indian Government concede demands for autonomy time and again, giving in to the aspirations of different ethnic groups at different points of time. This, in turn, has opened the Pandora’s box with the proliferation of movements to achieve economic and political liberation on ethnic lines, thereby leading to feuds between ethnic groups within the region over territorial supremacy.

Turf Wars or Battles for Space

    Before the agreement between New Delhi and the leaders of Assam’s Bodo ethnic group on 10 February, 2003, another Bodo Accord was signed in February 1993 that had led to the creation of a Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC). The BAC was a non-starter as the Government could not arrive at a consensus in so far as the territorial boundary of this Council was concerned. But, the set of modalities that it put in place to fix the Council’s boundary triggered off a violent ethnic cleansing in western Assam.

      Let us look at the inter-ethnic violence and the trigger factor: In the summer of 1996, the Bodos clashed with the Santhals, another ethnic group that cohabited the area around the principal district town of Kokrajhar, 250 kilometers west of Guwahati, Assam’s capital. More than 300,000 people belonging to both communities were displaced, and around 250 people were killed in the ethnic riots that began on 15 May, 1996 and continued sporadically till the end of that year. As on October 2009, an estimated 9,000 families, totaling around 25,000 people, are still living sub-human lives in 12 so-called relief camps set up by the Government in Kokrajhar district. The authorities have since rehabilitated 30,000 families during the past decade. Although a relative calm prevails in the area, the divide between these two groups has been widened beyond expectation.

     Both communities, the Bodos and the Santhals, had been living in peace in the area for decades. But after the Bodo Accord of 1993, the Government came up with a formula that only those villages with a 50 per cent Bodo population were to be included into the BAC. This provision is generally believed to have encouraged a section of Bodos, including armed militant groups representing the community, to attempt ethnic cleansing—driving out the non-Bodos to convert vast stretches into Bodo majority areas and thereby get them included into the Bodo Council and widen its territory .

    The radical elements within the Santhal population responded by forming such rag-tag armed groups with scary names as the Adivasi Cobra Militants of Assam. The Cobra rebels began by snatching arms from the police and the paramilitary troopers, and emerged as a regular militant outfit. The outfit has been on a ceasefire with the government since 9 September 2001.

    The Kuki-Naga riots that rocked the state of Manipur in the mid-nineties, mainly during 1992-1993, leading to the deaths of hundreds of people, is another clear example of inter-ethnic battles in India’s North-east over territorial control. Both the Nagas and the Kukis are fighting for separate homelands and their territories overlap. Members of the two groups have frequently clashed in the past, too, for control of the lucrative heroin trade route through Moreh, an Indian outpost close to the border with Myanmar. The key factors that have prompted the Kuki-Naga clashes include the desire of the Nagas, particularly the rebels, to ease out the Kukis who form a sizeable chunk of the population in the four hill tribal-dominated districts in Manipur that they have set their eyes on. This also led to the emergence or consolidation of the Kuki insurgent groups that also resorted to violent means to counter the Naga rebel actions or to defend the community, often located in remote hill-top hamlets. The Nagas in Manipur, including the United Naga Council, Manipur (UNCM), have been openly seeking the merger of the Naga areas in Manipur into the adjoining state of Nagaland.

      The armed insurgent groups in the region may be fighting the Indian state, but when it comes to protecting their own homeland cause, they don’t hesitate to lock horns with other rebel groups or forces within the region. For instance, the ULFA—fighting for a ‘sovereign, Socialist Assam,’ since its formation on 7 April, 1979—openly came out against the NSCN-IM’s design to unify the Naga-inhabited areas in the North-east by merging Naga-dominated territories in states like Assam with the state of Nagaland.

     Aspirations for a separate homeland has driven many other tribal communities of the region towards initiating movements, most of which have ended up assuming violent overtones. As the Indian State has over the years shown signs of only listening to voices of the gun and has somehow adopted a policy of rewarding terror, each passing day has added to the number of tribal communities waging a war or at least threatening to wage a war against the Indian State unless their demand of autonomy is addressed.

      Around 35,000 Reangs (also known as Brus) fought for autonomy in the state of Mizoram from six relief camps in North Tripura where they had taken shelter. In October, 1997, these tribals had to leave Mizoram after the Mizos led by the influential student organization, the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) and the Young Mizo Association (YMA), allegedly burnt their houses, killed people and raped women.  Since then the Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF), which is said to have originated from the relief camps of North Tripura, where they have been living since leaving Mizoram, have entered into negotiations with the Mizoram State government leading eventually to the signing of a peace agreement in 2005. The Mizoram government has agreed to take back the Bru refugees after the due process of identification is complete.

     In Assam’s southern districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills, there is a continuing political movement for an autonomous State since the mid-1980s. Even though both these districts enjoy protection under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, and have in place Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) to look after the administration of these districts, fears of being dominated by the outsiders (which includes every person who is not a local tribal) has generated an autonomous State movement, spearheaded by the Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC).  It is a different matter altogether that the ASDC movement itself has split over the years. The demand for an autonomous State, even though not dead as yet, has effectively been pushed to the backburner.

      Besides, the political movement by the ASDC factions, the area had, until recently, witnessed a violent insurgency by two fringe, yet violent militant outfits, the United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) and the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD) which have been pursuing their independent agendas for independent states. These militant groups have been faction-ridden and most factions of the groups have either entered into ceasefires with the government or have surrendered to the authorities. Close to 400 rebels belonging to the Jewel Garlossa faction of the DHD (DHD-J) laid down arms before Assam chief Minister Tarun Gogoi at a function in North Cachar Hills on 2 October 2009. Interestingly, the proposed homelands of both these outfits (they have now scaled down their demands to an autonomous state within Assam) eat into the NSCN-IM’s dream of ‘Greater Nagaland.’

   Additionally, in Karbi Anglong itself, the Kuki population, the antecedents of whom have been open to speculation, had been engaged in a bitter conflict with the Karbis in general and the UPDS in particular. The Kuki demand for an Autonomous Region within Karbi Anglong has met with violent opposition by the UPDS. Regional party leaders in Karbi Anglong perhaps view the Kuki autonomy movement a threat to their own aspiration for autonomy.

   The Hmar tribes-people are engaged in yet another struggle for autonomy. The Hmars are scattered in Mizoram, Manipur and Assam and since the mid 1980s have been demanding a homeland for themselves. It was first the Hmar People’s Convention (HPC), which led the movement for an administrative structure for self-governance in the north and northeast of Mizoram. “In 1992, HPC representatives and the Government of Mizoram mutually agreed to hold ministerial level talks. Consequent to nine rounds of such talks, a Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) was signed at the Mizoram capital Aizawl on 27 July, 1994, for establishing the ‘Sinlung Development Council’ and subsequently, 308 HPC militants surrendered along with their arms.”  However, that led to a hard-line section of HPC cadres parting ways and forming the HPC-Democracy in 1995. The HPC-D has shown little signs of responding to calls for peace. In 2003, HPC-D militants fought with the Dimasa tribals for a period of two months in Assam’s Cachar and North Cachar districts, a conflict, which claimed an estimated 60 lives.   

   Tripura is a bit quiet after three decades of violent insurgency.  Remnants of the two main militant groups, the National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF), still continue to worry security forces.  Even though the demand of these two outfits vary from the expulsion of the immigrant Bengali population from tribal areas to the establishment of an independent homeland for the tribals, the patterns of violence resorted to by both the outfits demonstrate that they have long given up their ideology and have degenerated into purely terror outfits. They, in a way, symbolize the slide insurgent outfits have taken over the years, by giving up their ideological overtones and being overtly dependent on foreign support or guided by foreign elements.



     The biggest challenge of the government in the North-east today is to tackle the violence that is being used as a tool by various ethnic rebel armies or organizations seeking to represent ethnic groups to fulfill their aspirations. The government’s policy of actually rewarding groups engaged in terror is definitely acting as an incentive for other or newer militant groups to pursue a similar tactic—create terror, get noticed, enter into a truce, start the process of so-called peace talks and reap financial and/or political benefit. Take the case of the Jewel Garlossa faction of the DHD (DHD-J): between March and 10 July, 2009, at least 63 people were killed by cadres of the group in southern Assam’s North Cachar Hills district. Trains were targeted, leading to a halt in train services for weeks together. Then the group suddenly offered a ceasefire, leading to the 2 October 2009 surrender of more than 400 cadres. Now, Assam chief minister Gogoi announced during the formal surrender ceremony that the state government would come up with a Rs 50 crore development package for the district. This is the Assam’s government’s unilateral offer. The demands of the DHD-J have reached the state government and these demands are being considered. Obviously, an autonomy deal is in the offing. That would mean political rehabilitation of the surrendered rebels. This certainly is incentive enough for more people to take up guns in the rugged North-east. What is needed is a close look at the situation and come up with newer measures to deal with the ethnic aspirations in the nation’s far-eastern frontier.


Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati