WHEN the North-East of India comes up for discussion in a public forum or figures in media coverage, the stock phrases used in conversations or dialogue usually give the impression that the entire region is engulfed in strife and confrontation. I am willing to bet that a majority of stories would be inspired by phrases such as “ethnic tension”, “racial discrimination”, “trouble spot”, “conflict zone”, “insurgents strike again”, or road blockades and bandhs. The grievances are both genuine and imagined, not to forget the annual floods which disrupt movement, life and commerce for three to four months.
HRD Minister Smriti Irani holds a Garo warrior sword while campaigning in the Meghalaya assembly elections. The media does not portray the varied culture of North-Eastern states.
As a result, the region which we call the North-East rarely gets space on its own as a place of interest, with remarkable stories and fascinating people, both ordinary and extraordinary, beyond either the conflict, corruption, disaster or tourism themes. These themes basically coalesce into the “Terrible North-East” or “Incredible India” silos.
Looking beyond nuances
One reason which militates against a more nuanced approach in columns, articles and news stories is the real challenge of explaining and dealing with the daunting complexity of the region: Over 220 ethnic groups. located in eight states. Barring three states – Manipur, Assam and Tripura, which have a history of kingdoms going back several centuries – the other states are new, created between 1963 (Nagaland) and 1986 (Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh). Yet, communities in all states – barring migrants from Bangladesh, Nepal, Tibet and Myanmar — have continued to live in broadly the same areas for hundreds of years. In addition, there’s the issue of physical location: The region’s borders with four other countries take up 96 per cent of its land frontiers. Many have cross-border cultural, linguistic and ethnic connections such as the Kukis, Chakmas and various Naga tribes like the Konyaks.
To understand some of these “conflicts” which media pundits harp upon, we need to understand that it was the entry of colonial rule in the 19th century which placed defined political borders along ethnic lines.
- Over 220 ethnic groups are located in eight states in the North-East.
- Barring three states — Manipur, Assam and Tripura, which have a history of kingdoms going back several centuries — the other states are new, created between 1963 (Nagaland) and 1986 (Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh).
- Yet, communities in all states — barring migrants from Bangladesh, Nepal, Tibet and Myanmar — have continued to live in broadly the same areas for hundreds of years.
- There is also the issue of physical location. The region’s borders with four other countries take up 96 per cent of its land frontiers. Many have cross-border cultural, linguistic and ethnic connections such as the Kukis, Chakmas and various Naga tribes like the Konyaks.
Exasperated with the manner in which hill tribes (from today’s Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland) conducted raids on the British commercial interests, (especially tea plantations) and seized captives and property from the plains, army expeditions were sent to quell the marauders. Lines and borders were drawn up to limit their activities.
The collision of colonial ideas of what people should be was resisted, sporadically. Indeed, there is a spillover effect and the genesis of some of the post-Independence revolts or struggles against the Indian State can be located in that resistance. We cannot also dismiss the huge pressure that large societies and states wield on smaller groups, which have strongly held notions of self-esteem and separateness. These may not have been well-articulated in the past. No longer. With growing levels of education, research, improved income levels, better opportunities and communications, scholars, civil society activists and commentators in this region are able to communicate their ideas and experiences with greater confidence, vigour and rigour than before.
The new generation
The large outflow of youth, especially to metros and states perceived as “peaceful” or presenting employment and education opportunities is another significant sign of changing perceptions and priorities. While an earlier generation – be it in Nagaland or Manipur and Mizoram and even Tripura and Assam — may have fought vigorously for Independence or greater autonomy, their children have accepted the idea of India, if not embraced it. The lakhs of young people from the region who migrate across India in search of jobs, education and livelihoods are an example of people voting with their feet.
Part of this has come out of the fact that today there is a greater public and political investment or interest in keeping and maintaining peace in areas which were known as trouble spots. Again, large numbers of those who fought against the State have fallen, withdrawn from combat, or are engaged at the negotiating table, in peace camps or jail.
Of course, these conditions, for the main do not hold. Armed/political movements, though some leaders may still believe in these ideas, have morphed into intimidatory, extortionist and brutal groups, which harm the very people they claim to represent. That does not excuse the brutal strategies and methods used by the State and its security forces — mostly in the past but which occasionally come to our notice even these days — to “soften” up or target the movement by violent conduct that impacts civilian populations. There are many tragic events of innocents getting hurt beyond measure at the hands of security forces in the past, events that would not be countenanced today: burning of villages and homes, rape, large-scale beatings and detentions and killings with impunity because of the protection of laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. A significant new factor is emerging, be it in Nagaland or Manipur and Mizoram and even Tripura and Assam. A major factor is that the younger cadres are not regarded with the respect accorded to earlier generations of ‘national workers’: they are seen as extortionist, intimidatory gangs and violators of rights and dignity. Movements are growing against extortion openly in places like Nagaland. This is an extraordinary phenomenon which cannot be appreciated enough. In places where none would dare to speak against the underground, anti-underground/extortionist marches and protests and strikes now take place on a regular basis.
Each conflict situation different
Yet, there is much official frustration over the complexity of the region which makes problem solving even more complex: thus, what works, for example, in Mizoram cannot be applied to Nagaland or the Naga peace process; the Bodo imbroglio is seen as unique and no one is paying attention to the Garo National Liberation Army in Meghalaya which has been running amuck. While each conflict situation is different, there is a common thread running through them all — each one thinks theirs is a “unique problem” or challenge.
Thus, it is hardly surprising that the region has turned out to be a graveyard of ceasefire resolutions: An agreement maker is set upon as a “betrayer”, its leaders and cadres targeted while the dissident claims to be the “true” representative. Often, both sides collude with sets of political groups or individuals especially at the state level, in what I define as the process of “manufactured consent”, in closed rooms, behind shut doors, in a opaque and fragile process, created for elites or wannabe elites.
This has happened repeatedly, giving the feeling that political interest in settling problems is is not as much as priority as enablingthe continuance of unsettled conditions where the contractor, businessman, middle man, ‘ug’ (underground), official-and-politician nexus benefits.
The Mizo accord
But this is not to say that there are no examples of peace making actually working. The best is that of Mizoram, from 1986. This is a remarkable experience that few contemporary scholars have researched at depth, nor has the media even bothered to look at it (the peace accord completed 25 years in 2011 and by my reckoning, there was only one event outside of Mizoram to reflect on it and honour it. And that was organised by the Centre for North-East Studies at Jamia). As far as I am aware, no Central Government institution, Ministry or leader thought of commemorating it, although the media and many research groups went gung-ho on how the British public regards the Battles of Kohima and Imphal as the most decisive battles of their military history!
Yet, one could argue that the Mizos, especially the civilian population, suffered more than any other part of the country in a situation of conflict with the State.
Air Force attacks on civilian settlements, (the insurgents left as soon as these began), razing of villages, displacement of 220,000 out of a district of 280,000 and marching bewildered and frightened villagers to new sites for settlement without considering the long-term consequences and trauma or even how such regrouped villages would survive in the future.
That many of them have done so is no tribute to the Indian State or the security operations of the time, which were protected (and continue to be) by the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act.One doubts whether the word “compensation” was even used in the aftermath of the 1966 uprising. Yet, the Mizo accord has lasted; there has been no looking back for the Mizos. It should be showcased and celebrated. And whether it is the new Government at the Centre or any other entity, it would be worth looking at why it has worked and others haven’t, those midnight, shotgun marriages, and why other efforts are so long in the making. — The writer is Director, Centre for North-East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is among the most respected commentators, writers and researchers of the North-Eastern Region.