Updated: Aug 24
Northeast India has had a historical presence in the country and world as the focal point of ethnic violence, extremism and insurgency. The fear and existential crisis due to mismanaged political affairs have, as compared to earlier, increased in the northeast region of India and when one talks about the identity politics in tribal communities there, it immediately alludes to the urgency of preservation of their identity.
With eight sister states, each with very unique identities in terms of food, language, culture, the whole of the northeast has been and still remains a politically vital and strategically vulnerable region of India. Increasingly, subsequent to interactions with non-tribal communities and excess immigration, tribal communities have been facing threats and are close to social exclusion in the country. Due to this threat of exclusion, the northeast region has, over the years, witnessed emergence of extremist organisations challenging the sovereignty and integrity of the Indian Constitution.
Historically, the Naga movement was the first reflection of the identity crisis and whose main goal was to integrate the Naga-inhabited areas of India and Myanmar. Continuing the list of organisations formed, it includes United Liberation Front of Assam(ULFA), National Democratic Front of Bodoland, National Socialist Council of Nagalim, Kuki National Army, Bru National Liberation Front, National Liberation Front of Tripura, Zomi Revolutionary Army, Liberation Tigers of Arunachal, United Liberation Tigers of Arunachal, Revolutionary Army of Arunachal Pradesh, etc.The demand of each group varies from autonomy to balkanisation and sovereignty.
As the political dimension of identity is very complex in India, the main juncture of discord in northeast India has also been a threat to linguistic cultural subjugation and economic negligence. The failures of managing the public affairs have caught the political limelight.
The northeast region of India has over 220 ethnic groups and almost equally, various dialects, with Bodo forming the largest ethnic group in the whole region. Around 1705, the Raja of Manipur had officially adopted Hinduism as the state’s religion. Unlike the people of Assam, who continued to use their native Tibeto-Burman language, it did not follow any customs and traditions of Hindu practices such as inhibitions of divorce, child marriage, widow remarriage, and casteism. Hinduism in the region was only limited to the plain areas as the Indic culture never reached the hills.
The Ahom kingdom, which was then established in the Brahmaputra valley, welcomed the migration of upper Burma in the first half of the 13th century. In 1818, due to various conflicts with the Burmese people, the Ahom king requested assistance from the British East India Company (then based in Calcutta) who fought and defeated the Burmese armies. The war ended with the treaty of Yandaboo because of which the Burmese agreed to withdraw from Assam (larger Assam) and the Ahom king gave a part of his territory to the British East India Company as a gift. Ultimately, this war gave the Britishers an opportunity to build rights and interests in the region of northeast India which led to extinction of the Ahom Kingdom by the 1830s. After the great Indian revolt of 1857, British rule increased over the entire northeast and the colonial policies started taking control over administrative arrangements of the area. For the British, gaining control over northeast India gave them access to Southern China’s land overseas for their natural wealth.
Throughout the British colonial period, the Northeast was treated differently from other regions of British India. During the very early stages of colonisation, it formed a part of the Bengal province, until 1874 when it became a separate province of Assam, although the governance remained the same. In 1874 also came a new act called the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act which was introduced in order to protect the minority indigeneous groups in the hills of Assam by restricting foreign entry, business activities and land settlements. In 1935, the hills were balkanised into “excluded” or “partially excluded” areas.
There was a gradual population inflow of Muslims from the Bengal province in pursuit of land and jobs within the region. A major reason for the influx was the growth of the region during the British era with various job opportunities produced in tea plantation regions, and demand in the oil and coal fields.
Political rivalry thus took sharp turns on the basis of origin, namely Assamese and Bengali and on religions, namely Hinduism and Islam.
The cleavage widened when partition became imminent and religion became a dominant factor in deciding the future of Assam. This is when communities started using tactics to increase their strength by increasing their own population within the region.
Soon after Britain’s withdrawal, the status of the northeast changed. It was not clear whether Assam would be separated from India or form a part of independent India. Hence, the autonomy of the region became the subject of heated discussion.
The final decision was taken by the last governor general of British India - Lord Mountbatten, who decided in June 1947 that Assam and northeast should belong to independent India.
But the region’s history of separation and isolation still created problems for the national formation and integration into independent India as the population was volatile and could be instigated easily.
In the 1950s, the northeast essentially referred to Assam, Manipur and Tripura.
The most urgent task of the Indian government after independence was to consolidate a new nation state. To break down the emerging anti-Indian sentiments of the northeast region’s people and give vent to their ethnic aspirations, the government created four more states namely Nagaland (1963), Meghalaya (1972), Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram (1987). However, the formation of these new states created more economic and social instability as the states were incapable of delivering basic goods.
State Formation in northeast India
The region of northeast India during the time of independence was composed of the Assam plains of the old province, hill districts, North Eastern Frontier Tracts (NEFT), and princely states of Manipur and Tripura, both of which opted for a merger with India in 1949.
The administrative power of the excluded or partially excluded areas in the hills of Assam were transferred to the Government of Assam on 15th August, 1949, which acted on behalf of the government of India. The Indian government initially was unable to sensitively respond to the complex realities of the northeast and rather seemed to follow the colonial policy of isolation and alienation, treating the region starkly differently from the other states of India.
The Indian Constitution, promulgated in 1950, contained a special provision in the form of a sixth schedule for administration of “tribal” areas to protect the people of these areas who were scattered throughout the country. This provision applied to the ethnic groups in the hilly regions of the northeast and it was divided into two parts, Part-A and Part-B. The United Khasi and Jaintia Hills District, the Garo Hills district, the Lushai Hills District, the Naga Hills district, the North Cachar Hills district, and the Mikir Hills District were placed in
Part-A as autonomous districts administered by the government of Assam, with limited representation in the Assam State Legislative assembly. The northeast Frontier Tract, the Balipara Frontier Tract, The Tirap Frontier Tract, the Abor Hill and Mishmi hills district and Naga Tribal Area came into Part B, which was administered by the government of Assam.
Tripura and Manipur were not considered as states by then, but were named as special administrative regions under control of the central government. Hereafter, state formation in Northeast followed a process to divide Assam. The four states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram were separated from Assam one after another.
After Assam, the first area to attain statehood in the northeast was Nagaland (1963). Nagaland has a complicated history that began in the British colonial period. In order to avoid conflicts with Nagas and avoid disrupting traditional Naga society, the British administration cautiously practiced a non-interference policy which led to isolation of the Nagas. However, Nagas, although isolated, voiced their intent for independence. In 1918, an organisation called “Naga Club” (later changed the title to Naga National Council (NNC)) was established, which discussed the future of Naga hills after British withdrawal, who soon enough started demanding status of autonomy for the Naga society.
The claim took a new turn as India’s independence approached. The Indian government and the government of Assam continuously rejected the proposal of NNC to seek independence from India or within India as a separate state.
Boycotted by the Naga society following disobedience, in January 1956, the government declared Naga hills area a “Disturbed Area” putting it under Indian army’s command.
Due to military pressure, the NCCs pursued a separatist movement and in March 1956 declared the establishment of “Federal Government of Nagaland”.
In response to this crisis, Naga Hills district was separated from Assam and in December 1963 Nagaland was established as the smallest Indian state with a debut population of about 3,50,000.
Due to the India-China border conflicts in 1962, the government did not wish to further complicate the situation and thus settled by accepting Nagas’ move for statehood.
After the establishment of Nagaland, various demands for statehood were put forth by other hill regions and secessionist movements.
For instance, representatives from the Khasi and Jaintia Hills district and Garo Hills Districts expressed the hope of forming their own Hill state. But these were not accepted by the State Reorganisation Commision.
The aspirations of other communities grew stronger when the Assamese proposed the state's official language in the language bill of 1960.
The movement of statehood continued and in 1970, Meghalaya was established as an autonomous state which became fully fledged by 1972.
The process of state formation in the case of Meghalaya was comparatively peaceful as the majority of the population belonged to only two major ethnic communities, the Khasis and the Garos, each of them inhabiting their own territory in the hills.
The Mizo hills area, which was an excluded area during the colonial period, became Lushai Hills district within Assam at the time of independence and in 1954 was renamed as Mizo Hills district of Assam. Against the background of prevalent discontent with government relief work for the victims of the famine mautam in 1959-1961, the movement for independence began in Mizoram.
Similarly, in the case of Nagaland, the government began attempting to suppress the Mizo’s movement by military force but soon after reaching accord with the moderators of the Mizo National Front (MNF), the government established Mizoram with the status of Union Territory which attained statehood in 1987.
Tripura and Manipur, which were formerly princely states, became the Central Government’s administration after they joined India in 1949. They were given the status of Union territories and later in 1974 became Tripura state and Manipur state.
During the creation of Arunachal Pradesh, the shift to statehood took place peacefully through the initiatives of the central government. Although the area was given its own name after independence of Assam, China’s adjoining unsettled border kept the place military equipped by the central government.
The area was upgraded into a Union Territory in 1972, and in 1982 became a state. It is possible to interpret Arunachal Pradesh’s promotion to statehood as a move by the Indian government to indicate the region’s national claim to China.
Sikkim, a small mountainous region surrounded by China in the north, Nepal in the west and Bhutan in the east, had followed a different process of state formation.
It was a kingdom at the time of the arrival of British in India. In 1819, a treaty was signed by the British known as the Treaty of Titalia with Sikkim, through which and other engagements the British were able to exercise their power in Sikkim. In 1947, a treaty was signed between independent India and Sikkim under which the latter could retain its special status as a protectorate of India. Sikkim soon became the 22nd state of India in 1975. The institution of the king was abolished and Sikkim merged with India in 1995.
Demographic Ethnic Composition of northeast India
The eight states of northeast region of India cover a combined area of over 255,088 sq. km (7.7 per cent of the country’s territory) and, according to the 2011 Census of India, a population of 4,55,87,982 persons (3.74 percent of national population).
India’s northeast connects with five countries- Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, China and Nepal by a 4,500 kilometer international border. The region is characterised by extraordinary ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic diversity, with more than 160 Scheduled Tribes, and a large and diverse non-tribal population as well. ‘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.
According to 2001 census reports, Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh have had an overwhelming majority of India’s tribal population. In the case of religion, Hindus constitute the most religious category in Assam and Tripura and in some ways in Manipur.
Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya are enumerated as Christian majority states. The most dominant languages are Assamese, Bengali and Manipuri in the states of Assam, Tripura and Manipur. The rest of the states’ populations practice a variety of local languages for vernacular communication.
English is the most spoken language in Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya. Some of the smaller states show a high rate of urbanisation like Mizoram and Manipur. Mizoram and Tripura rank 3rd and 4th respectively as most literate states in our country. According to the 2011 census report, Manipur and Meghalaya have a positive record of female literacy and well-being compared to many big states in the mainland of India.
Beginning of Identity Crisis
The Northeast Indian region is located between two regions, Indic Asia and Mongoloid Asia. This geographical condition is one of the important factors of the crisis of identity here.
While addressing the identity crisis, one has to bear in mind the cultural plurality of the northeast and difference in people assimilated into tribal and non tribal people in particular.
Northeast, then called Assam has had an ethno-linguistic-ecological historical heritage which characterised the ethnic population.
The predominant tribal regions of Northeast had witnessed formation of three types of society such as ‘tribe’, ‘chiefdom’ and ‘state’. The clans and age set systems in the region functioned hierarchically. Hinduism remained confined to a few places including the royal families among Kachari, Ahom, Jaintia, Koch, Tripuri, and Meitei.
The British colonisation process in older Assam started in 1826 and ended in 1898.
At the very beginning, the colonial regime followed a non-interventionist approach in most of the larger Assam.
In 1873, the Inner Line in hill areas were introduced - no one could pass the line without license. That is when local tribes resisted colonial interference in their areas and often attacked them. These attacks were mostly depicted as “raids” and “uprisings”.
In 1850 and 1862, the entire Jaintia and Garos tribe rose against the imposition of taxes. The Lushkai-Kukri, Manipuri and many plains raided British posts in 1860-90, 1891, and 1892-1894, respectively.
There are records of Aka / Khamti resistances -1835-1839; Naga resistances - 1835-1852, and even an agrarian movement in 1893-94.The Sonaram (1902), Kuki (1917) and Jadonang- Gaidinliu movements (Singh 1982, Das, 1989) symbolised early ethnic struggles.
Consequently, upon the visit of the Statutory Commission in 1920s, further apprehension of marginalisation had grown among the tribespeople and minority communities.
Colonial rulers allowed missionary activities. Association with the Christian missionaries and gradual spread of education amongst the tribes and other communities infused a sense of self-esteem.
This factor is crucial to understand the eventual birth of ethnonationalism among the Nagas, Mizos, and Manipuris. In some hills and the Brahmaputra valley, there was simultaneous revulsion for Assamese linguistic- cultural domination. This perception alienated a few tribes and thus led to growing discontentment among the Bodos, the Karbis, the Ahoms and many others.
Under the relatively peaceful period of 1930s, which may be called ‘the silent phase of identity consciousness’, the tribal people demanded ‘participative representation’ in the principal Legislative Assembly.
The Khasi, Ahom, Naga, Mizo, Bodo-Kachari, Miri and Deuri communities were the first to demand “ethnic representation”. Lalungs established a Durbar in 1967, and Koch people had similarly been conscious about their minority status.
In a memorandum submitted to the Assam Government during 1970s, the Assam-Koch-Rajbanshi-Khatriya Sammilani demanded proper representation in all bodies, quota in employment, scholarships to students and publication of their history and culture.
The All Assam Garo Union was established in 1983. The Hajongs in Assam urged the Government to recognise them as a Scheduled Tribe.
In the extensive history of this region the feelings of in-group-out-group, perceived marginalisation, and ‘minority-consciousness’ have variously surfaced as key factors causing ethnic unrest. Ethnic conflicts in the northeast originally grew essentially out of primordial affiliations. The distinctive ethnicity factor amongst communities led to steady expansion of aggressive binary categories of in-group and out-group (Das 1989, 1994, 2004, 2007).
In northeast India, the fear of exclusion started even before Independence. The Nagas foresaw the possibility of exclusion in postcolonial India in the event of their integration with Indian Union.
The sense of social exclusion in the northeast began with the emergence of new social forces including the educated elite, students, youth groups etc.
The impact of Christianity on the socio-cultural life of people and spread of education was one of the many reasons for the emergence of social forces in the NorthEast. Ethnic identity proved itself as a grouping ground for mobilisation. Just like Dalits who mobilised, started in the education sections of Mahars in Maharashtra and these social forces articulated the grievances of the communities.
An unemployed excluded youth will always turn his/her decision to ethnic mobilisation.
It has been argued that the process of identity formation began with formation of large groups in the northeast region where the social exclusion had a more dialectal link with psychological exclusion.
Among many other reasons which contributed to the identity crisis, one of the major factors was the nation’s states which harbored creation of ethnic communities.
In India, freedom from the British never brought solace to the communities as the majoritarian idea of freedom had suppressed the smaller ideas from the very beginning.
Pitfalls of the nation's building process contributed to a faulty modernisation process and eventually undermined the specificities of ethnic minorities of the region and generated a sense of fear among them. The capitalist character of modernisation especially weaned traditional norms, values and practices which were inherent to the tribal communities.
After independence, the 6th schedule of the Indian Constitution provided institutional accommodation to the tribal communities through various measures like protective discrimination policies in various states- the interests of tribes are protected by Inner Line Permit (Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Mizoram).
In the process of nation building, communities were left out because of highly low numerical strength and low bargaining power with power structures. The inclusiveness promised by the post colonial states showed no results and that is when the Naga Movement began in 1947, when the Indian state undertook counter insurgency measures and affected the life and property of many.
The government followed a top-down administration strategy through which local and traditional institutions of various tribes could retain their nominal presence, but it only created conflicts between these institutions and the government leading to unaccountable conditions of development.
With the tribal demography and its transformation over the years, during 1872-1971, the tribal population increased vigorously but some percentage of the population had to give up their own language.
The issue of identity had arisen in northeast India with states in an unequal state of development which definitely resulted in unequal opportunities to take advantage of the resources within the states. The less-developed communities felt threatened in the company of their more developed counterparts and thus started raising concerns over the imminent danger of extinction of their communities due to aggressive use of resources by the latter.
Understanding social exclusion: Inside and Outsider syndrome in northeast
Skewed free land and domination by Bengalis over property made tribal people a minority.
Many parts of northeast India have faced the issue of identity crisis majorly because of migration in the area that has resulted in social exclusion. Since independence, the area has witnessed migrants relocating from various places like Bangladesh, Nepal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and other parts too from where people came for business. This insider-outsider problem changed the social, economical, political and cultural lives of the natives of the northeast. Just like Tripura, the natives started becoming landless and land alienation led to Bengal migration.
The native community was slowly reduced to a minority and the migrant Bengalis started emerging as a dominant force. Apart from socially excluding these newly formed minority groups in the region, there was also depletion of natural resources and other material existence was also threatened like occupation of government jobs by non-natives. There was a sense of social consciousness among the native-turned-minorities as they started experiencing relative deprivation.
The first set of migrants that landed in the northeast region of India were the Austro-Asiatic speaking people who originated from South East Asia a few thousand years before Christ.
The second group of migrants mostly arrived from the Tibeto-Burman language speaking people. Slowly, the migration of the Indo-Aryan speaking people started from the gangetic plain. All these groups of people settled in different periods of time and the entire region was also referred to as the “museum of races”.
In the pre-British era, most of the migrants in the northeast were from the East region like South west China and Upper Burma. During and after the British rule there was a heavy influx of Bengalis, followed by Nepalis and other tribal people from the other parts of India. Several historians have even suggested that the colonisers had started importing tribal and backward caste Hindus from regions such as Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and other parts of British India to work as bonded labourers in tea plantations. Further, to run the administration, the British even brought lawyers, officers and clerks from Bengal, creating hostility between Ahom nobility and British bureaucracy. To even feed the increasing population, Britishers encouraged Muslim peasants from erstwhile East Bengal to settle in fallow and wasteland areas of Assam in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Unlike the case of Partition in Western India, the partition in eastern India is a long-drawn-out one. There was no complete transfer of population as in Western India and there were no refugee properties to be occupied by the inbound migrants as in Punjab. The migrant population saw a continuous flow over the next decades with the rise of communal violence in East Pakistan.
In 1950, it is estimated that about 1 million more refugees crossed into West Bengal, particularly in the aftermath of the 1950 Barisal riots and Noakhali riots. Migration continued from East Pakistan to India right up to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, both on an ongoing basis and with spikes during the communal unrest such as the 1964 East Pakistan riots and the 1965 India Pakistan war, when about 60000 refugees had left for India. Another major influx into India took place in 1971 during the Bangladesh Liberation War when Hindu refugees escaped mass killings, rape, lootings and arson and about 10 million east Bengali refugees entered India during the war and about 1.5 million refugees stayed back and became citizens of India, fearing to be a minority in Bangladesh. Along with Bengali Hindus, minorities like Chakmas and Hajongs too fled East Pakistan to take shelter in the Northeast during that period. While some stayed back after the war, the Indian government had given settlement to the majority of refugees in the sparsely populated northeast Frontier Agency, now called Arunachal Pradesh.
Again, the military coup of 1962 forced Burmese Indians to flee the country and take shelter in the northeast. Many of the descendants of the uprooted Tamil migrants are now settled in Moreh in Manipur. Manipur resulted in a high increase in the number of net in-migrants, before which the rate of migration was never high.
Repercussions of the identity crisis: Separatist movements and Insurgency
Northeast India has been the most volatile and insurgency affected place in our country after Kashmir. What jeopardises the rest of India's links with this region is its growing military force. Militant movements started as early as India’s independence in 1947 and after a certain time about 120 militant groups were operating in the northeast region of India.
The Indian government, in its recent years, has successfully achieved some stability in the region through negotiations to military operations to root out militants.
Militancy started off in the region in Nagaland (which was earlier a part of the larger state of Assam). Similarly, Mizoram (which was also part of former Assam) experienced the rise of militancy after the Union government failed to respond to its demand for assistance during the massive “Mautam Famine”.
Each conflict faced due to insurgent and separatist movements has raised concerns around issues regarding language and ethnicity, tribal rivalries, migration and alienation.
Beside the loss of human life, hundreds and thousands of people have been internally displaced and living in unhygienic conditions.
The state of Nagaland still bears the scars of the region's history of insurgency which led to various tribal divisions victim to the Naga insurgency during the 1960s.
The United Liberation Front for Asom (ULFA) which demands secession in regard to Assam’s economic exploitation, has been the most influencing insurgent group in recent years.
ULFA represents the Assamese speaking Hindu descendants of the Ahom community, and still continues to be a major source of violence and instability in the region.
The Mizo insurgency had evidently occurred as a spin off effect of Naga Surgency and lasted for over 30 bitter years. The tensions in Mizoram were mostly around because of the dominating Assamese tribe which neglected the interests of Mizo people. This led to emergence of Mizo National Front to bring in more peace in the region. In a latest development package, Mizoram has been given a 38 million dollar “peace bonus”.
Talking more about insurgency problems, in Tripura, these began with emergence of Tripura National Volunteer in 1978 and has been continuing since then.
While reaching peaceful terms with the government of Tripura, All Tripura Tribal Force (ATTF) was formed, followed by National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT). They continued to target unarmed civilians as well as security forces.
At present, violence in the northeast has effectively reduced to a great extent because of the constant presence of the armed forces in the region. Tripura and Meghalaya are now completely free from military control.
It has been stated that the government will make the NorthEast military proof by the end of 2022. However, violence in Nagaland and some places in Manipur still persists because of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN).
CAA and NRC implementation in the region
The recent Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has added several complexities in understanding who will be categorised as an “illegal migrant” in India.
The act came into effect on 19th December 2019 . While the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, protests arose all over the country creating a huge havoc.
The heated debate over NRC and CAA is more than being just communal and anti-Muslim as it has also affected the indigeneous people. Assam’s civil society, the largest farmers’ organisation, student organisations, pressure groups, teachers, writers, actors, indigenous people’s rights organisations, tribal people’s rights organisations, all opposed this decision taken by the government along with other state governments in India’s northeast.
Even though the ethnic identities are partially recognised by the 6th schedule of the Indian Constitution, for the indigenous people with Tripura and many other groups still lay out of the amendment’s domain. It is tragic for those who had fled from different geographical locations to avoid religious conflicts and persecutions and now are living at the cost of this blanket law.
What both CAA and NRC ignore together is the complex ethnic population of our country, since the act is very constrained in its capacity to understand the circumstances of different cultural groups and the local issues of the region.
By rewarding citizenship to discriminated minorities, the government had promised to make Assam “safe”, but what is ignored are the excess numbers of migrated Bengalis.
The first NRC list was rejected by the government for the same reason and creation of a new one was demanded .
The mainland has believed that through CAA, non-discriminatory problems will be solved related to religion but this still avoids the issues of indigeneous people.
CAA does not apply to few areas like Meghalaya, Assam, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh and the area covered under Inner Permit Line (IPL).
The National Register of Citizens has already declared about 2 million people as “illegal” migrants in Assam who are now facing detention in camps.
Assam has witnessed movements against Bangla-speaking migrants for about four decades and since then 6 detention centres have been constructed and put under operation. There have been about 100 deaths in these centres since 2008 including suicides committed by the inmates.