India’s volatile north-east
by Siddharth Deva April 2002

India’s north-east has seen more violence in the last 50 years than any other part of the country. Yet the outside world knows virtually nothing about the crisis there.

More than half of all Indians killed in political violence in the 1980s and 1990s died in the north-east. The region is bedevilled with armed insurgencies or secessionist movements from over 50 groups. Thousands of people have died, and hundreds of thousands more are internally displaced, living in unhygienic, makeshift camps; every year, hundreds die from disease. Yet little is known about conditions in a region the size of the UK. ‘Quasi-martial’ law makes it difficult for journalists – Indian and foreign – to work in the region, while security concerns, government obstruction and the highly sensitive political situation hamper aid and protection efforts.

Seven states (also known as the Seven Sisters) constitute the Indian north-east: Assam (the largest and most important), Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. Together, they cover a total of 255,000 square kilometres, with a combined population of over 30 million. The region is connected to the rest of India only by a narrow neck of land, the 21km-wide Siliguri corridor. It borders China, Burma, Bhutan and Bangladesh. With the exception of Assam, this is a region of huge mountains and fierce rivers. It is home to over 200 tribal groups and sub-groups. Christianity is the majority religion in Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland, and there are substantial Christian minorities in the rest of the region.

The roots of the insurgencies

Although each of the region’s many and complex conflicts has its own roots and history, together they raise common issues to do with language and ethnicity, human rights, tribal rivalry and ethnic resentment, migration, under-development, control over local resources, access to markets, the decay of political institutions and a widespread feeling of exploitation and alienation from the Indian state. There is little industry in the north-east, and agriculture is backward. Although the north-east has substantial reserves of oil, natural gas, limestone-dolomite and coal, political violence means that much of these resources go unexploited. There is also huge potential for hydroelectric power, but harnessing this raises environmental and political issues. In 2001, the Indian prime minister announced a $2 billion development package for the area, but in the short term insurgency and the trade in small arms and narcotics will remain attractive options for the region’s young people.

The oldest insurgency is in Nagaland. The main Naga militant group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaak–Muivah), claims a territory six times the size of present-day Nagaland, including most of Manipur, as well as parts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Burma. Assamese nationalism emerged in the late 1970s as a protest against immigration from West Bengal and the influx of ‘foreigners’ from Bangladesh. The most prominent Assamese insurgent group is the secessionist United Liberation Front for Asom (ULFA). While the ULFA has lost some of its mass appeal, it is still a major source of violence and instability. The Bodos, the largest plains tribe of Assam with an estimated population of 1.1m, are fighting for indigenous rights and tribal empowerment in a majority non-tribal state. They mobilised in 1987 to demand the creation of a separate state, Bodoland, and have since been driving away non-Bodos, especially the Santhals, to make their strongholds into exclusively Bodo areas. The Bodos have a pattern of ethnic cleansing that is missing from the ULFA, and India’s response to their insurgency has been predominantly military.

The Indian response

The Indian government’s political and military efforts to deal with these various insurgencies have met with mixed results. In the mid-1980s, the government signed a peace deal ending the 20-year insurgency in Mizoram, and making the Mizo leader chief minister in the newly-pacified state. Mizoram has since benefited from significant funds from the centre as part of a ‘development package’.

Mizoram is often viewed as the model of a successful anti-insurgency policy, and its positive outcomes are attributed to the Indian government’s willingness to allow an insurgent leader to emerge as an officially recognised figure within the political system.

The Indian government appears to be trying the same approach in Nagaland, where it has accepted the NSCN (I–M) as its exclusive negotiating partner. The territorial ambitions of the Nagas have, however, complicated the picture because they infringe on territory belonging to other states. Moreover, the NSCN (I–M) does not represent all the Naga tribes. Although a ceasefire is in place, New Delhi’s intensive counter-insurgency operations and the militarisation of daily life in the region have only compounded the problem. The local population is trapped between a repressive government and intolerant militants, against the backdrop of a shambolic democratic process. Delhi-appointed governors in the north-east play a dominant and meddlesome role in local political life, much to the irritation of local leaders.

The insurgencies also have a complicating regional aspect. Dissident groups have sought refuge in Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Burma, and have received training in Pakistan and China. New Delhi views the insurgencies in the north-east not as expressions of local discontent but as part of wider efforts at destabilisation by China and Pakistan. For New Delhi, the north-east is a hotbed of Pakistani intelligence activity.

A more stable future?

The key to a safer future for the north-east lies in a better mix of Indian policies, the principal ingredients of which are: economic development, focusing especially on the needs of the poor and socially neglected; greater tolerance of local control; a willingness to work with local leaders; a strengthened democratic process and stronger civil society institutions; and more intensive efforts at reconciliation.

Ultimately, the humanitarian situation in this region will only improve if peace is realised. As with Afghanistan today, peace must be ‘bought’ in India’s north-east with the promise of genuine development that meets the aspirations of poor people and does not discriminate against any group or locality. This may be the only way to address the humanitarian impact of decades of violence in the region, which has caused so much human misery and devastation. Only then will the people of India’s north-east be noticed by the international community, and given the attention they deserve.

Siddharth Deva is Policy Adviser for South Asia at Oxfam GB.

References and further reading

S. Parasuraman and P. V. Unnikrishnan (eds), India Disasters Report (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Prakash Singh, Kohima to Kashmir: On the Terrorist Trail (New Delhi: Rupa and Co, 2001). B. P. Singh, The Problem of Change: A Study of North-East India (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

Atul Kohli (ed.), The Success of India’s Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Jyotirindra Dasgupta, ‘Community, Authenticity, and Autonomy: Insurgence and Institutional Development in India Northeast’, Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 56, no. 2, May 1997.