Conflict in Northeast India: Issues, Causes and Concern
The Northeast region of India comprising of eight states – Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Tripura and Sikkim– a region poorly connected to the Indian mainland by a small corridor, and surrounded by many countries such as Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and China, is the setting for a multitude of conflict that undermines the idea of India as a prosperous and functioning democracy.
For instance, the Naga insurgence, which started in the 1950s, known as the mother of the Northeast insurgencies, is one of the oldest unresolved armed conflicts in the world. In total, Manipur, Assam, Nagaland and Tripura have witnessed scales of conflict that could, at least between 1990 and 2000, be characterised as low intensity conflicts. However, it must also be mentioned that internal conflicts have been a permanent feature of the Asian political landscape since 1945, of which post-colonial India is no exception. Currently, most of the states in the region are affected by some form of conflict, expect for Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Sikkim in which the situation is at the moment relatively stable. The reasons for the respective conflicts are wide ranging from separatist movements, to inter-community, communal and inter-ethnic conflicts.
Unfortunately, the data and information on the region is not sufficiently analyzed and communicated between the region and the Centre, contributing to further misinformation, mismanagement and alienation. At another level, conflict in the region has been an all pervasive phenomena, and in its violent form, it has not only affected the territorial and political sovereignty of the Indian state, but also the life of the various people living in the region in incomprehensible and inexplicable terms. In a drastic and dreaded sense, there is a “culture” of conflict and unfortunately, people have submitted to such an existence. However, amidst the widespread sense of helplessness, there is also an overwhelming desire and force to be free from such a situation of conflict which cripples the people from all sides.
To gain a holistic understanding of the problem that has historical and contemporary dimensions, it is important to assess and understand the various facets of the problem that interact with each other.
Historical reasons for the conflict
The historical connections among the traditional tribes in the Northeast are largely of Tibeto-Burman/Mongoloid stock and closer to Southeast Asia than to South Asia. It is ethnically, linguistically and culturally very distinct from the other states of India. Though cultural and ethnic diversity per say are not causes for conflict, but one of the major problem areas is that the Northeast is territorially organized in such a manner that ethnic and cultural specificities were ignored during the process of delineation of state boundaries in the 1950s, giving rise to discontentment and assertion of one’s identity. Whereas,the colonial rulers took nearly a century to annex the entire region, and administered the hills as a loose ‘frontier area’, with the result, that large parts of the northeastern hill areas never came in touch with the principle of a central administration before.
Hence, their allegiance to the newly formed Indian nation-state was lacking from the beginning – accentuated by the creation of East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) – which meant the loss of a major chunk of the physical connection between mainland India and Northeast India. Interestingly, 99 percent of the Northeast’s boundaries is international and only one percent is domestic boundary.
Issues of governance
The Indian government’s past and ongoing processes of national integration, state-building and democratic consolidation have further aggravated the conflict scenario in the region. For instance, the eight states comprising the Northeast is populated by nearly 40 million inhabitants who vary in language, race, tribe, caste, religion, and regional heritage. Therefore, most often, the clubbing of all these states under the tag of ‘northeast’ has tended to have a homogenizing effect with its own set of implications for policy formulation and implementation; not to mention local aversion to such a construct.
The politico-administrative arrangements made by the Centre have also been lacking. For instance, the introduction of the Sixth Schedule Autonomous Councils (currently there are ten such Councils in the region and many more demanding such status) ended up creating multiple power centers instead of bringing in a genuine process of democratization or autonomy in the region. Moreover, Para 12 (A) of the Sixth Schedule clearly states that, whenever there is a conflict of interest between the District Councils and the state legislature, the latter would prevail. It is even alleged that it is “a mere platform for aspiring politicians who nurture ambitions to contest assembly polls in the future” (Teresa Rehman, Tehelka, 30 January 2009).
The AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Power Act) for instance, shows the inability and reluctance of the government to solve the conflict with adequate political measures. The AFSPA was passed on 18 August, 1958, as a short-term measure to allow deployment of the army to counter an armed separatist movement in the Naga Hills, has been in place for the last five decades and was extended to all the seven states of the Northeast region in 1972 (with the exception of Mizoram). It was part of a bundle of provisions, passed by the central government, to retain control over the Naga areas, in which the Naga National Council (NNC) demanded further autonomous rights. The AFSPA became a powerful measure for the central and the state government to act against actors challenging the political and territorial integrity of India. As a result, the Indian army for the first time since its independence was deployed to manage an internal conflict. But, instead of resolving the problem, it led to an ongoing escalation of the conflict by bringing it on a military level. The regular violations of human rights has led to a radicalization and militarization of the region and weakened also the supporters of a political solution. According to the Human Rights Watch Report (August 2008), “The Act violates provisions of international human rights law, including the right to life, the right to be protected from arbitrary arrest and detention, and the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. It also denies the victims of the abuses the right to a remedy.” A fact-finding commission, appointed by the government in 2004, complained that the “AFSPA has become a symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of discrimination and highhandedness”.
Though the conflict in the region is mired with complex political-economic issues, such as, struggle over natural resources, migration related issues, displacement, social exclusion, and so on, according to Dr Clemens Spiess, “the politics of identity lie at the heart of the bigger part of the current conflict constellations in the Northeast”.
Foreign Policy imperative
India’s ‘look east policy’ which was formulated in 1991 on the heels of India’s economic liberalization, was a foreign economic policy initiative towards South East Asia. The Northeast which is geographically situated between mainland India and Southeast Asia is supposed to have had immense developmental benefits as a result of this initiative and hence, have synergy effects on reducing poverty in the region; as well as on insurgency and armed conflict. The region’s diverse natural resources, rich bio-diversity and enormous hydro-electricity potential, among others, could also help to overcome the widespread feeling of backwardness among the inhabitants of the Northeast. But there is also increasing argument made that the impact of increased introduction of market imperatives in the traditional society of the region would have irreversible impact on the people’s culture and life and it would also lead to increased settlement of mainland people to the northeast. Thereby it is of high importance, that the announced opening will take place in a regulated frame and through cooperation with the local people, otherwise it could aggravate the tensions between the center and the region.
The government has also faced criticism in the way in which it has been looking at the Northeast as an issue of territorial security rather than development per say. The fear of a growing Chinese influence, as well as, increasing cross-border terrorism (Myanmar, Bangladesh) in the region are some of the factors cited as reasons for limiting India in its attempt to open the region.
To conclude,in the words of Clemens Spiess, the various problems and conflict constellations in the Northeast “represent(s) durable challenges to the integrative and accommodative capacity of Indian democracy”. The HBS India programme on ‘Democracy and Conflict’, of which the Northeast is an important component, focuses mainly on the Northeast region of India and aims to support, facilitate and contribute to civil society engagement, participation, and intervention in the region with regard to conflict prevention. Thereby, facilitating intermediation between the various stakeholders involved in the diverse conflict constellations in the region, be it the public, civil society activists, state representatives, journalists, academicians and researchers; and contributing to the promotion of integration and socialisation into a democratic political culture through dialogue and civic education. The overall objective of the HBS programme is to promote the peaceful coexistence of conflict affected ethnic groups through strengthened democratic processes, with gender being a cross-cutting issue.