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«Survey of Conflicts & Resolution in India’s Northeast ? Ajai Sahni? India’s Northeast is the location of the earliest and longest lasting ...»

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Survey of Conflicts & Resolution in

India’s Northeast ?

Ajai Sahni?

India’s Northeast is the location of the earliest and longest

lasting insurgency in the country, in Nagaland, where separatist

violence commenced in 1952, as well as of a multiplicity of more

recent conflicts that have proliferated, especially since the late

1970s. Every State in the region is currently affected by insurgent

and terrorist violence, 1 and four of these – Assam, Manipur,

Nagaland and Tripura – witness scales of conflict that can be categorised as low intensity wars, defined as conflicts in which fatalities are over 100 but less than 1000 per annum. While there ?

This Survey is based on research carried out under the Institute’s project on “Planning for Development and Security in India’s Northeast”, supported by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). It draws on a variety of sources, including Institute for Conflict Management – South Asia Terrorism Portal data and analysis, and specific State Reports from Wasbir Hussain (Assam); Pradeep Phanjoubam (Manipur) and Sekhar Datta (Tripura).


Dr. Ajai Sahni is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) and Executive Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict and Resolution.

Within the context of conflicts in the Northeast, it is not useful to narrowly define ‘insurgency’ or ‘terrorism’, as anti-state groups in the region mix in a wide range of patterns of violence that target both the state’s agencies as well as civilians. Such violence, moreover, meshes indistinguishably with a wide range of purely criminal actions, including drug-running and abduction on an organised scale. Both the terms – terrorism and insurgency – are, consequently, used in this paper, as neither is sufficient or accurate on its own.

have been several governmental peace initiatives, multi-track diplomacy and Non-governmental Organisations (NGO) peace activities are at an incipient stage. Governmental policies do not encourage international interventions – direct or indirect – in any conflict resolution processes, though mediated developmental interventions are sanctioned.

The Region Seven States comprise India’s Northeast: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. 2 These States cover a combined area of over 255,088 sq. km. (7.7 per cent of the country’s territory) and, according to the 2001 Census of India, a population of 38,495,089 persons (3.74 per cent of national population). The region is characterised by extraordinary ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic diversity, with more than 160 Scheduled Tribes3 belonging to five different ethnic groups, and a large and diverse non-tribal population as well. The ‘scheduled tribes’ only refer to the tribes listed in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, and do not reflect the actual complexity of the ethnic mosaic of the region, which comprehends over 400 distinct tribal and sub-tribal groupings.

Contrary to widespread perception, however, the tribal population of the region constitutes only about 30 per cent of the total population, though the distribution is skewed. While the ‘non-tribals’ dominate Assam and Tripura, over 60 per cent of the population of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland is drawn from the Scheduled Tribes.4 The identity of an eighth State, Sikkim, is progressively being subsumed within the region. A bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament) on December 8, 1998, to include Sikkim in the North East Council. In the budget speech, 1998-99, the finance minister stated that the government confirmed the proposed restructuring of the NEC (www.expressindia.com/budget98/speech.htm), and the Cabinet subsequently passed the proposal for restructuring. The legislative process to effect the necessary changes is, however, yet to be completed.

These are the unique tribes or tribal communities that are recognised under Article 342 of the Indian Constitution. A very large variety of sub-tribal distinctions add to the diversity of the region.

See North East Development Finance Corporation Ltd., NER Databank, North East India, General Information.


The dichotomy between the ‘hills people’ and the ‘plains people’ has been a persistent feature of the life of the Northeast and Robbins Burling, in the context of ‘undivided Assam’ – which comprised most of what is India’s Northeast today – comments on the presence of ‘a minority of tribal mountaineers’ who could be distinguished from the ‘lowland majority.’ Nevertheless, as one group of researchers observes, the people of the hills and of the plains or valleys are radically different but have always been interconnected.

Indeed, the Northeast has been an area of great and continuous civilisational intercourse through history, and has been thought of as “a gateway of commerce and culture that linked India overland to east and Southeast Asia”, and a “complex transition zone of linguistic, racial and religious streams.” 5 The ‘indigenous tribes’ of the Northeast represent successive waves of migrants, both from East and West, with many entering the region as late as the 19th Century. The cultural mosaic was made more complex as a result of the British policy of ‘importing’ large numbers of administrators, plantation workers and cultivators from other parts of India.

However, this historical ‘connectedness’ was systematically undermined by the British policies of progressive segregation of tribal populations into virtual ‘reservations’ called ‘nonregulated’, ‘backward’ or ‘excluded’ areas that were administered under a succession of unique provisions between the years 1874 and 1935. These provisions excluded the tribal areas from the pattern of administration that prevailed in the rest of British India, from the operation of the codes of civil and criminal procedures and a wide range of laws that were thought to be unsuitable to the ‘stage of development’ of the populations of the hill areas of the Northeast, as well as from the gradual ‘democratisation’ that was taking place through the nationalist and eventually the Independence movement. An ‘Inner Line’ system that prohibited access to these areas to all ‘outsiders’, except those who obtained special permission from the government, created “a frontier B.G. Verghese, India’s Northeast Resurgent: Ethnicity, Insurgency, Governance, Development, New Delhi: Konark Publishers, 1996, p. 1.

within a frontier’, accentuating the political and cultural schism between the tribal areas and the plains.

Regrettably, such isolationist policies persisted in the postIndependence period under the mistaken motives of ‘protecting’ the tribal population against exploitation by ‘outsiders’. The cumulative impact of these policies was a deepening of fissures between tribal and non-tribal populations, as well as a contrived and unsustainable exclusion of these regions from the processes of modernisation and democratisation. Inevitably, with the progressive and natural erosion of these artificial barriers, the local populations were brought into increasing friction with migrant populations that were far better adapted to the institutions and processes of the modern world, giving rise to a proliferation of conflicts throughout the region.

The dichotomous administrative system both in the pre-and the post-Independence era, also produced wide variations between the pace of development in the hills and the plains, with the latter dominating the economic profile of the region, and the tribal areas lagging far behind. It is the wide swathe of the Brahmaputra Valley – comprising nearly 22 per cent of the region – that has long been the most economically active, with substantial plantation and industrial estates and reasonable infrastructure.

For much of the British period, undivided Assam was thought of as the “north-east frontier of Bengal”, and its economy and politics were largely dictated from and linked to this westerly direction. Partition was, consequently, an extraordinary disaster for the Northeast in particular: the separation of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) resulted in the abrupt severance of inland water, road and railway communications, as well as the loss of access to the Chittagong port, crippling crucial economic linkages and driving up costs of all commodities. Partition also brought with it unceasing waves of unwanted migration that disrupted, and continue to disturb, existing demographic equations. It was shortly followed by the Chinese takeover of Tibet and the increasing ‘hardening’ of the previously ‘soft borders’ with Burma/Myanmar, sealing off the region in the Easterly direction as well. B.G. Verghese sums up the cumulative impact of the

chain that commenced with the cataclysmic events of 1947:

The physical and psychological severity of the blow was not fully appreciated in the country and the disruption of communications and markets was not repaired soon enough, nor infrastructure developed to match the new needs completed as expeditiously as necessary. Isolated and traumatised, the Northeast turned inward. A succession of insurgencies and movements to seek separation or autonomy, assert identity or exclude foreigners and outsiders aggravated the hiatus, with the rest of the country coming to think of the Northeast with disinterest as a far-away place, perpetually troubled.

Beset with its own internal problems and complexes, the Northeast fell behind economically and despite its inherent wealth remains at the bottom of the heap as a conglomeration of seemingly impecunious special category States.

…The political, economic and social consequences of this situation were accentuated by the change of regime in Tibet and the new relationships with China that engendered, and the virtual closure of the hitherto open border with Myanmar (Burma) with insurgencies rampant on both sides…6 The Northeast region has critical strategic significance and, as is often remarked, remains tenuously connected with the rest of India through a narrow corridor, the ‘chicken’s neck’ or ‘Shiliguri Corridor’, in North Bengal, with an approximate width of 33 kilometres on the eastern side and 21 kilometres on the western side.7 This constitutes barely one per cent of the boundaries of the region, while the remaining over 99 per cent of its borders are international – with China to the North; Bangladesh to the South West; Bhutan to the North West; and Myanmar to the East.

Widespread conflict marks the region, and Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Tripura are severely disturbed (See Table 1). In addition, the Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh Ibid, pp. 2, 336-7.

The corridor comprises Islampur sub-division of Darjeeling district, Jalpaiguri Sadar and Alipurduar sub-divisions of Jalpaiguri district and Toofanganj, Mathabhanga, Coochbehar Sadar, Dinhata and Mekhliganj subdivisions of Coochbehar district.

witness the spillover effect of insurgencies from the neighbouring States, particularly Nagaland, Assam and Manipur. Meghalaya also grapples with political uncertainties and problems posed by two militant outfits, the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) 8 and the Achik National Volunteer Council ( NVC), 9 A which were banned by the Central government on November 16,

2000. Mizoram has remained largely free from terrorist violence since the political resolution of the insurgency in this State in 1986, 10 but the activities of the Bru National Liberation Front (BNLF) have given cause for concern, and have inflicted some civilian and security force (SF) casualties.

Illegal migration of Bangladeshi nationals into India and the use of Bangladeshi and Bhutanese territory by insurgents operating in India’s North East are a grave security concern for the region.

Circumstances in the theatres of conflict in India’s Northeast go against the general presumption of a direct and self-evident conflict of interests between the government and its various agencies, on the one hand, and the terrorist groupings, on the other. A complex collusive arrangement between various legitimate power elites and terrorist groupings exists in every single terrorism-affected State, and this arrangement facilitates a continuous transfer of resources into the ‘underground economy of terrorism’. In contrast to the common perception of terrorist activity as violent confrontation with the government, there is a more insidious subversion of the established order through a consensual regime against a backdrop of widespread breakdown of law and order, and terrorist groupings have demonstrated their For a profile of the HNLC, see South Asia Terrorism Portal; India; Terrorist Groups; Meghalaya; HNLC; www.satp.org.

For a profile of the ANVC, see South Asia Terrorism Portal; India; Terrorist Groups; Meghalaya; ANVC; www.satp.org.

With the signing of the Mizoram Accord between the Centre and the leader of the Mizo National Front (MNF), Laldenga in June 1986.

Table 1: Fatalities in insurgencies and terrorist conflicts in India’s Northeast, 1992-2001

–  –  –

preference towards ‘systemic corruption’, rather than the dismantling or destruction of the prevailing political order. 11 A substantial proportion of the current proliferation of armed groups representing various tribal and ethnic identities in the Northeast is the result of the demonstration effect of the ‘success’ of other such groups in the past. Such ‘success’ is not necessarily measured in terms of any political gains but, increasingly, in terms of the financial gains of widespread criminal operations that are undertaken by all militant groups in the Northeast (as in other theatres of conflict in India). The collusive character of many of the terrorist movements in the region, in terms of their linkages with overground organisations, legitimate businesses, the State bureaucracy and the political leadership enormously reduces the actual risks of militant activity and also provides secondary incentives for the creation and operation of armed gangs.

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